Scripps medics pack their bags for Nepal: How and why the system is deploying medical aid

Global aid organizations have deployed to Nepal to help with rescue and relief efforts, and now some of the U.S.' most equipped health systems are sending teams of their own. San Diego-based Scripps Health is one of them.

At least 5,238 people are confirmed dead with another 10,248 injured as of Wednesday evening as a result of the massive earthquake Saturday in Nepal and its aftershocks, according to CNN.

Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps, says the Scripps Medical Response Team is prepared for the mission. The team, which will be comprised of about five or six Scripps physicians, surgeons and nurses, prepares for deployment to assist in natural disaster relief efforts on a daily basis. The team members work in departments such as trauma surgery, critical care and the emergency room, where they provide care to patients who have undergone unanticipated injury or experienced severe trauma.

The team also participates in annual training sessions in mobile hospitals to become acclimated with delivering care with limited resources.

Scripps Health established a relationship with the International Medical Corps, a disaster emergency response organization, in 2014. IMC response teams were some of the first to deploy to Indonesia after the giant tsunami in 2004, Japan after the 2011 earthquake and to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

The IMC identified the Scripps Medical Response Team, which had established itself as an effective aid provider during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, as a partner, along with response teams from Stanford and Harvard.

After the IMC put them on standby following the earthquake in Nepal Saturday, Scripps, Stanford and Harvard were each prepared to contribute 15 members to a combined 45-member team, which together would form a 50-bed trauma hospital for a 21-day deployment period, Mr. Van Gorder explained. However, on Wednesday evening, the IMC notified Scripps that its ground assessment in Nepal changed the need for aid from trauma to medical. Scripps now plans to send a group of about five or six members to Nepal with the IMC for the first 21-day deployment. Subsequent assessments will determine the need for a second deployment.

While the Scripps team has proved itself a valuable asset in relief efforts, it is a relatively recent addition to the system's vast healthcare services. Mr. Van Gorder established the Scripps Medical Response Team after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

"It was one of those days you never forget," says Mr. Van Gorder. "My kids — who were very young at the time — happened to turn on the TV that morning and we saw the second plane crash into the building. When I realized it was real, I wasn't sure if the whole country was facing an attack. I rushed into work and met with our CMO. I asked him, 'Do you think we're ready?' The reality is that we weren't."

After realizing the system was not prepared to handle a national emergency, Mr. Van Gorder made the decision to form a team ready to act in times of need. Initially the team was formed to aid local communities, but after Hurricane Katrina hit, Scripps answered a call for help. Since that time, the team is always on alert and ready to act when needed.

After Mr. Van Gorder notified employees that Scripps is deploying the team to Nepal, he received hundreds of emails from employees who wanted to go with or help in some way.

"There is a profound sense of pride and compassion built into this organization," says Mr. Van Gorder.

The Scripps Medical Response Team's experience providing aid in Haiti after the earthquake has given team members a greater understanding of what to expect in Nepal. There are many challenges associated with such missions, such as working with extremely limited resources. According to Mr. Van Gorder, in Scripps' mobile hospital in Haiti, there was just one running sink, no bathrooms and no food. The medical team was also dealing with huge crowds of patients seeking care and no medical records. The emotional strength, endurance, flexibility and teamwork required to act bravely and effectively in such circumstances is a tremendous feat in itself, he says.

Mr. Van Gorder's first priority for his team preparing for deployment to Nepal is to ensure their wellbeing.

"We want to do good, but my biggest responsibility is that the people we send in are safe and come home safe," he says. "This may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the team. They are going to a beautiful country with beautiful people. The Nepalese are facing an enormous tragedy now, but the lessons the team will learn from them will last a lifetime."

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