Dr. Zachary Terwilliger, a Halifax Health Emergency Department physician, was attending to a big emergency recently.
He was with one of the first medical teams to go there and treat storm victims, and he plans on going back.
Dr. Terwilliger described how loss of life was much greater than was being reported by national news outlets, and how devastating the conditions were with thousands of people missing or dead. Yet, at the same time, he believed the strength and resilience of the Bahamian people will get them through the crisis.
The doctor has fond memories of vacationing in the Bahamas over the years, particularly in Green Turtle Cay where he and Dr. John Shedd of Palm Beach ended up going. When Hurricane Dorian happened, his first thought was how he could help.
“I learned to free dive and spear fish there as a young kid,” he said. “I just love the people there. They are very independent, resourceful and just very caring people. They are tough as nails. That’s one thing that hit home with me. Why did this happen to people that I love. As an ER doctor, I recognized there was something I could do.”
At that point he contacted Dr. John Shedd, former Volusia County EMS director who also has spent significant time in the Bahamas. Together they made the trip and saw more than 100 patients in their first two days (from an island population with only about 450 people). They didn’t have labs; they had a blood pressure monitor and a glucose monitor and “had to figure it out.”
“The thing with emergency medicine is you have to be willing to see everything that walks in the door,” Dr. Terwilliger said. “Anything from a simple rash to a complex shooting event.”
He said having that wide range of skills was exactly what was needed to help in the Bahamas. He was told to bring work gloves along with medical expertise as the needs were so great in so many areas.
“We went from treating patients to clearing brush and helping people with their homes,” the doctor said. “I dare say 90% of the homes (in Green Turtle Cay) were reduced to sticks and rubble. Nearly every island in the outer Bahamas were destroyed. The eye wall (of Dorian) sat on top of these places for 24 hours with reports of winds of 200-250 mph for 24 hours.”
Their base was a small clinic that had to be adapted for emergency care. Dehydration was one of the biggest issues the doctors encountered as people went right back to trying to fix their homes without fresh water. Skin and soft tissue infections were common, as were diabetes issues, typhoid, cholera, and even depression and near psychosis.
“These people have never been confronted with anything like this before” Dr. Terwilliger said. “And people didn’t mind waiting. They were happy just to see the clinic was up and running. It gave them hope.”
He added, “It was incredibly sad and upsetting to see a place you’ve always held in your heart as a beautiful place. I really just didn’t have words to describe the kind of destruction there really was. To see century-old homes reduced to rubble. We were ready for anything, but it was still a culture shock. The same would have been done to us if that storm had turned.
“These people lost their homes, know people that lost their lives, but the next day were helping each other,” Dr. Terwilliger said. “That was one of the more striking things. Bahamians were saving Bahamians. Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas is going to be back because of the Bahamian people.”
He stayed in a home that had a generator and slept with a dozen others on cots and mattresses on the ground in a living room. “The guys that were running the operation were boat mates and boat captains that love the Bahamas just like I do” he said.
On the flip side, Dr. Terwilliger also saw what happens when people get desperate, with looting and crime.
Dr. Terwilliger grew up in New Smyrna Beach where he still resides. He hopes to go back in October to both Green Turtle Cay and Treasure Cay.
Direct Relief was the organization that donated all of their medical supplies, antibiotics, primary care medicine and wound care supplies. He described the operation he had with Dr. Shedd as a mobile emergency department. Dr. Terwilliger recommended donations go there or to Go Fund Me pages for Green Turtle Cay Relief or Hurricane Dorian Relief. He said those donations go directly to the people of Green Turtle Cay. Sol Relief is another good place to donate.