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Northwell doctors, nurses heading to Houston cancer center

On Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, Northwell Health announced it is preparing to deploy 120 doctors and nurses over a three-week period to Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center.  The cancer center reached out and asked for assistance for their exhausted staff following Hurricane Harvey. (Credit: News 12 Long Island)

The first of three teams of Long Island health care providers leaves Monday for Houston to relieve doctors and nurses at that city’s premier cancer center where they’ve been working round-the-clock since Hurricane Harvey pummeled the Gulf Coast a week ago.

Michael Dowling, chief executive of Northwell Health, said officials at MD Anderson Cancer Center requested assistance in the wake of the epic storm that swamped Houston and environs with more than 25 trillion gallons of water.

“When there is a crisis, it’s amazing how health care becomes a No. 1 priority,” Dowling said during a news briefing in Lake Success on Friday.

Northwell has had a long and fruitful relationship with the Houston-based cancer center, Dowling said, so it was only natural for Northwell to come to MD Anderson’s aid now.

The news briefing, held at Northwell’s corporate headquarters, bore the distinct atmospherics of a war room: A command center has been set up in a third-floor conference room where Northwell emergency-preparedness experts were on the phone with their counterparts in Houston. As Dowling and several Northwell clinicians addressed the media, the command center immediately behind them was abuzz with activity.

All told, Northwell plans to deploy 120 oncology clinicians — doctors and nurses — three teams consisting of about three-dozen experts over a period of three weeks.

“We are going there with the best we have to offer,” said Dr. William Lowe, an emergency medicine specialist and a response effort coordinator. Although the emphasis is on aiding cancer patients, Lowe said he is keenly aware that after such a huge storm, infectious diseases may follow. He listed the possibility of norovirus outbreaks, E. coli infections and the flu.

MD Anderson, world-reknowned for innovative cancer therapy and research, is located in a vast area of Houston known as the Texas Medical Center, which consists of 54 institutions, including 21 hospitals and four medical schools.

In recent days as the storm inundated Houston, MD Anderson canceled outpatient visits to concentrate on inpatient needs, according to news reports. No one in the cancer center’s media relations office answered the phone Friday.

“We’re leaving on Monday and we want to make sure that we are sending the right team, to help the patients,” said Karen Gleason, a Northwell assistant vice president.

Northwell sought volunteers from its oncology staff. The health system’s experts who assembled Friday said hundreds answered the call. Those who raised their hands to help were being screened Friday.

Mary Mahoney, senior director of emergency planning and clinical preparedness, said her career is all about responding to crises: “This is my job. This is what I was hired to do,” she said of emergency response.

“I have been to 15 to 20 hurricanes in my career,” she said, noting that the Northwell team was ready to get to work following the country’s worst rainstorm on record.

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