Lending a helping hand

ER pair assist with Sandy relief effort


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Tarner and Kenison pose for a photo while in New York.

Todd Tarner

Instead of sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving meal, Todd Tarner spent the day more than 4,000 miles from his Eagle River home caring for hundreds of people left homeless by Hurricane Sandy.

Tarner and fellow Eagle River resident Donna Kenison were two of nine members of the Alaska-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team (AK-1 DMAT) that deployed to Long Island for about two weeks last month.

The team was tasked with helping provide medical support for about 600 people in a general population shelter and dozens more with special needs.

Witnessing hundreds displaced from their homes left a big impression on Tarner, a physician assistant.

“To see so many destitute, without basic needs,” he said. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience.”

The timing of the tragedy didn’t help.

“That was a sad part, too. Right around Thanksgiving,” Tarner said. “It made you appreciate what you’ve got.”

The scene in New York City was nothing like the despair on Long Island, Tarner said.

“It was like two different worlds,” he said.

With more resources, NYC got back to normal much faster than the outlying areas, Tarner said.

Long Island wasn’t as fortunate.

“So much was wiped out,” he said. “Monster beachside houses that looked like a giant went through and trashed everything.”

This was Kenison’s second deployment to New York. Her first was in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.

Working surrounded by devastation made her return trip difficult, said Kenison, a registered nurse.

“It was heart wrenching to see,” she said.

Seeing older men and women with all their remaining possessions fit in just two bags was especially hard on Kenison.

“To have to start their life over again when they’re 60 or older,” she said.

Federally funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, AK-1 DMAT is made up of volunteer doctors, nurses, physician assistants, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and non-medical support personnel from all over the state.

Despite being separated by large distances, Alaska has a tight-knit group of medical professionals, Tarner said, which makes AK-1 DMAT more enjoyable.

“Alaska is such a small medical community, you get to know most people around,” he said. “It’s just a good crew of people.”

The team, which was created in 1997, has deployed to disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as well as non-disaster events like the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Just shy of 40 members make up AK-1 DMAT, Tarner said. Ideally, he’d like 50.

“We’ve been trying to rebuild the team,” Tarner said.

Once activated, team members have just a few hours to pack their gear and report to the airport, Kenison said.

“It’s just short notice and go,” she said.

Both Kenison and Tarner said they joined the Alaska-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team to help others. That’s precisely what they did in Long Island.

“It was definitely worthwhile,” Tarner said.

 

Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or mike.nesper@alaskastar.com

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