Like the somber memories of Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Irma will be one of those weather events remembered for the impact it left on the residents of Florida. Bracing for its impact, the State of Florida exercised a great preparation and response plan, especially for those counties expected to endure the major brunt of the storm. Florida International University availed its campus in order to shelter a number of Key West residents, and no sooner were they cleared to return home, Hurricane Maria devastated the islands of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and a number of others, forcing the evacuation of a significant number of residents, many patients with significant medical needs. The following is a snapshot of how AMTA found a role in the disaster response phase, supporting the medical teams assigned to tend to this emerging crisis, highlighting the fact that massage therapy has a significant impact and role in national emergencies.

The story of the response to these events, actually begins long before the storm hit the Florida shores, or those of the beautiful islands in the Caribbean. The Department of Health and Human Services and its disaster response force prepare year round for events such as this. Officers within the U.S. Public Health Service , as well as the National Disaster Medical System teams train on an on-going basis on specific “response teams”. These medical officers and medical volunteers come from varied clinical and public health backgrounds, but properly matched to meet the needs of the team and its mission set.

Florida was blessed to have the support of HHS and the U.S. Public Health Service officers providing medical care at the FIU shelter and the American Red Cross Hurricane Irma shelter at the Miami-Dade County Expo Fair & Exposition. All left preset plans that may have been professional and/or personal in nature in order to serve our nation’s vulnerable population. For two specific teams, PHS-1 and PHS-1 Alpha, the trip to South Florida was a long and arduous one, landing in Orlando, while some rode buses from Dulles airport to Orlando, only to be told they would be stationed in Naples and 17 hours after assisting with a shelter at Palmetto Ridge High School were redirected to the beautiful campus of FIU.

Where the mind adapts, sometimes the body doesn’t, either due to overuse or abuse, and such was the case for many of these medical providers. The repetitious work of tending to patients in low cots, many with ambulatory and weight challenges, continually bending over to provide care, caused many to end the day with very sore bodies, only to find an equally unsatisfying cot limiting the body’s natural recuperation for the next day. To compound matters, all team members served as logistics officer enduring heavy lifts of water bottle bundles and supplies.

Though none complained of the mission’s work, it was clear on their faces that the physical demands of the job was taking a toll on them. This is when AMTA South Florida stepped. We reached to the command center of the operation and offered that we could and would love to show our appreciation for their work by volunteering massage therapists to tend to those tending to our citizenry. The idea was immediately welcomed, needing very little prodding from leadership to providing the very little required resources to make this morale booster a reality.

Commander Liz Garza acted as our point of contact. As our therapists graciously offered themselves up for the task, she’d coordinate the therapists schedule as such as all providers across all shifts would have an opportunity to partake in the free massages. It wasn’t long before CDR Garza communicated back to us that the medical team could not thank us enough, many coming off their relaxation sessions with smiles from ear to ear. The team of therapists cared for the deployed medical team, but also met the needs of the volunteering FIU nursing students and Red Cross workers; during the course of the initial week, more than 60 massages were performed.

As president of the Florida Chapter, I could not be any more proud of our AMTA volunteers in donating their time and effort to ensure others could find the energy and strength to continue the hard work they do.

Thank you to those who served proudly bearing the name of AMTA.

Note: Our chapter will reach out to other chapters to share our lessons learned and its very positive impact on disaster response.

We were even mentioned in the PHS-1 Alpha’s newsletter: Panther Express!