Medical student on rotation at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center helps reunite family after Hurricane Michael

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During and after Hurricane Michael, it was “trial by fire” for Nick McDonald, a third-year medical student at the Via College of Osteopathic Medicine at Auburn University, who is also completing a rotation at HCA Healthcare affiliate Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. The U.S. Army veteran, who had never experienced a natural disaster as a civilian, hunkered down in the hospital and hoped for the best but prepared for the worst.

Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, which was outside of the impact zone of the Category 4 hurricane, received more than 90 patients from sister facility Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center within the first 48 hours and continue to receive a large volume of patients every day. Hurricane Michael directly hit Panama City, Florida, home of Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center, resulting in the evacuation of more than 300 of its patients.

“We were one of the closest hospitals to provide care outside of the devastation path,” McDonald explained. “We had a handful of patients from the Panama City area and many of them didn’t have clothes, personal belongings, cell phone charges – nothing. They were hurried out of town to safety.”

McDonald, currently in his labor and delivery rotation, began rounding on incoming patients when he met a new mom who was sitting on the edge of the bed and staring at the door.

“I asked if she was ready to go somewhere,” the Auburn University Medical Student said, explaining that he uses humor to connect with his patients. “And without batting an eye, she said she was trying to get to her babies.”

She had delivered twins at Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center. The babies were transferred to a different sister facility, Osceola Regional Medical Center, ahead of Hurricane Michael, and the parents were moved to Fort Walton Beach Medical, due to damage at Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center, after the storm.

The nurses caring for the twins at Osceola Regional Medical Center kept in contact with the mom through FaceTime, so that she could see her newborns.

Anxious to get to their little ones, the parents were working with humanitarian and relief agencies to help with travel to Osceola Regional Medical Center in Kissimmee, Florida. However, due to the husband’s condition – he was a paraplegic – finding medical personnel to travel with them would take longer.

“One of the worst things you can do as a care provider is to offer a sliver of hope, without knowing you can deliver,” McDonald said. “I wanted to help in some way, but we also had a handful of people who were hurting in similar ways. You have to pick your battle and see who you can help the soonest and the most efficiently,” he added.

McDonald explored his options and discovered the best course of action was to drive the couple back to Panama City himself. On Saturday, he purchased fuel, snacks and food and other necessities for the mom and her family at discharge. Additionally, McDonald brought his emergency kit and, together, they hit the highway for Panama City.

“No one was going to stop them, but they had to get back. We just made sure it was safe enough to try it and it all worked out really well.”

Through downed trees and lights, emergency and power crews, McDonald and the couple eventually made their way to their home, which sat in the middle of an area that was demolished. Fortunately, the couple’s home was relatively untouched, except for minor water damage.

Next, McDonald took them to Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center, where their car remained intact.

“I checked the brakes, tires, oil, and fueled up the vehicle before they tested it around the parking lot,” he said. “Then, we said our good-byes.”

Although forever changed through this experience, McDonald doesn’t believe his story is unique. “For all of the devastation and for all of the sadness, the spirit that came out Fort Walton Beach Medical Center and this community is extremely empowering. There are a dozen stories like mine,” he said. “There were so many caregivers stepping up for families that were disconnected from their homes and for patients separated from family. The stories are countless.”

The way in which Fort Walton Beach Medical Center responded and the way the HCA Healthcare system came together has been one of the most positive medical experiences of McDonald’s life, he says.

“We had nurses who had been here for a week that came from Houston, some from Dallas – people coming from all over to donate their time, energy and efforts to this entire region. It’s been a sight to see.”

Nick McDonald is currently in his third year of medical school at the Via College of Osteopathic Medicine at Auburn University and is studying at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, an affiliate of HCA Healthcare. There are a total of 20 third-year medical students in rotation at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. McDonald is considering a residency program in Florida within HCA Healthcare. 

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