When a Disaster Hits Close to Home

Hurricane season is here, and as Child Life Disaster Relief, we often write about how to prepare, stay safe, and work with children after a hurricane.  However, we would like to also highlight the perspective of a CCLS within the hospital.  Leslie Dempsey, CCLS, shares her personal encounter of when Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, and what her new role became in the hospital as her and her children slept there during the storm.  Here is Leslie’s story:

I have lived in Florida my entire life. Hurricanes come with the territory of living here. Living in the Clearwater area, we have been lucky to avoid the destructive paths of most hurricanes despite a few close calls. In 2017, that changed for us when we were faced with the threat of an impending Hurricane Irma that was supposed to be a direct hit to the Tampa area as a Category 4 hurricane.

Panic set in among locals as people prepared their homes and evacuation plans for their families. Some chose not to evacuate. Store shelves were empty, gas stations were running out of gas; it was intense. As a specialist working in a hospital, I knew that the hospital would be the safest place for me and my family during the storm.

As the hospital initiated a code which activates our disaster response protocol, I volunteered to work during the storm. This meant I would have to report to the hospital prior to the storm hitting and remain locked in until the storm had passed. Due to hospital policies, I could only bring my children with me. This meant that my family and I had to make the difficult decision to split up during the storm. My two children, ages 2 and 6, came with me while my husband and parents had to stay in a shelter. The anxiety I felt leaving my house and saying goodbye to my family cannot be expressed into words.

I reported to work with my two children, a blow-up mattress, and all the necessities we needed for a few days or more. Here at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, my role as a child life specialist was to provide support for the employees’ children who stayed in the hospital while their parents worked. Naturally, the children had questions and fears about the storm. We sat them down in groups and went over the safety rules. We answered their questions of, “When will we get to leave? Are we safe here? What if a tornado comes?” We focused on what we knew how to do best, engaging them in a variety of activities and allowed them to process their feelings through play. It was a blessing that I could be with my children throughout the duration of the lock-in, but I felt completely torn between my role as a child life specialist and my role as a mom during that time. My kids were worried and sad. I was worried and sad. The unknown of how destructive the storm would be or what we would be returning home to (or not returning to) weighed heavy on my mind. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I wondered if my family would be okay. The sense of terror and fear that I experienced during that time is indescribable.

Hurricane Irma ended up making landfall just to the East of us and as a Category 1 hurricane. The location that we were in at the hospital was a blessing because it was a huge auditorium with no windows, so you couldn’t see what was going on outside throughout the duration of the storm. We couldn’t hear the storm or see how bad it was outside. This helped keep the kids we worked with calm. When we learned that the storm had weakened, we informed the kids. As children do, they received the information and continued with their play. Once again, just as in the past, we had fortunately lucked out from a direct hit of a major storm. After two days, we were able to leave the hospital and I felt immediate relief. Life didn’t go back to normal right away as there were some destruction and power outages, but we were all okay and together, and that’s all that mattered.

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