The first week of medical school was a whirlwind… and not in the way you would expect it to be...
Thursday, August 31st
I arrived in to the beautiful island of Sint Maarten. The island was absolutely stunning in every single way possible. As we flew over the crystal blue water, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My boyfriend, Michael and I rented a car for four days and were all set to explore the island. When I made it to my apartment, it was everything and more than I could imagine. It was a gorgeous one bedroom, one bath and was only a 5 minute walk to school. Even though we were exhausted, we were excited to get to exploring. We went to a local bar and had a couple drinks with the incredible locals. They were kind and very generous and gave us many inside local tips to the island - for instance, driving etiquette (people actually are nice to each other and allow other drivers to merge in front of them turning from a side road). The next couple days we went exploring and buying goods for my apartment. Everything was more than I ever could have ever imagined. The following days were spent exploring the island -- French side of St Martin, beaches, restaurants, grocery stores, sports bars, late night hangouts, and shopping.
Saturday, September 2nd
We awoke to a warning from the school and CNN news app indicating the island was under hurricane watch for a Category 2 Hurricane Irma. At this initial warning, the hurricane was not expected to hit Sint Maarten. Michael and I had never been in hurricane before. We were naïve and had no idea what to expect. As we ran into locals, they told us not to worry. Every islander we ran into stated the island has handled much stronger hurricanes and can re-build within a couple days. We weren’t worried the least bit… unlike our parents.
In the evening, AUC staff sent out an email stating if the students did want to leave the island they would not be penalized but school would resume as planned. Everyone on the island seemed to have been through so many hurricanes that we felt completely safe staying. We continued to have an amazing time at the beach swimming in the gorgeous blue waters.
Sunday, September 3rd
We awoke to more news, the hurricane had shifted and gained intensity into a category 3 hurricane. We continued to wait until the meeting at the school in order to make our decision on if we should book a flight off the island. At this time, the hurricane continued to not be in the direct path of Sint Maarten. Although Irma was tracking closer with expected significant rainfall and wind gusts. We started off our morning reading about possible hurricane preparation we would have to take if the hurricane intensified. We headed to my orientation for school from 8am-4pm listening to stories and exciting tales of many of the teachers and fellow students. Hearing so many incredible stories made me forget all about the hurricane warning. We were informed of a 5 o'clock meeting which would give us more details on Hurricane Irma and her potential path. Once we made it to the meeting at 5pm, we were informed that the hurricane had shifted from a category 3 to a category 4 with 110-115 mph winds, although Sint Maarten continued to not be a "direct hit". The school informed us that Building 2 (which was built 6 months earlier) was approved for category 5 winds and we would be 100% safe sheltering on the island. All students, all family of students, and pets were allowed to stay in the shelter during the storm. Michael and I both called our parents informing them of the news we received from the AUC staff. Our parents were worried, they wanted us to board a plane and get off the island for the storm. We continued to convince them we would be completely safe in the shelter. After searching plane flight costs, we realized all flights out of Sint Marten were $2,200 - $5,000 dollars. The cheapest flight I could find off the island was $2,200 dollars to Amsterdam. We decided it would be an adventure, so we continued to be adamant with our parents to stay on the island and not “waste” the money that could be spent towards a island car. We were in for an adventure all right. That evening, AUC staff cancelled all lectures for the first week of class and all the mixer for 1st semester students.
Monday, September 4th
We woke up with a shift from hurricane watch to hurricane warning continuing as a category 4 which was gaining strength. The email provided by AUC staff stated all students should come to Building 2 for shelter. The hurricane was shifting but was still not projected to directly hit Sint Maarten and was expected to be a little north of the island. Although the school advised us to be as prepared as we could. We were expected to arrive at Building 2 Shelter at 12pm-2pm the following day - Tuesday September 5th. We decided to be the best prepared we could in case the hurricane was worse than we expected. We googled and researched the best way to prepare for a hurricane. We had ABSOLUTELY no idea what we were doing. Michael made a list of random items we thought might be useful and went shopping at Carre Four and Ace Hardware for all the food and water we might need.
We packed up the car and headed to the store packing what we thought was essential…
Water, and more water
Tape for the Windows
First Aid supplies
BLOW UP MATTRESS for the auditorium
As we arrived to Ace Hardware we saw people buying extremely suspicious items… like large garbage bins. We later realized this was to store water before the storm started so they would continue to have water days later -- SMART.
We brought all the supplies home and then dropped off the rental car to avoid possible damages to the vehicle. At the end of the day, we sat on the beach and looked out into the sunset with the calm crystal blue waves crashing on the shore. How could anything be coming toward us? The waves looked so calm. The ocean so peaceful. The island more stunning then ever. We continued to swim in the beautiful crystal clear waters of Sint Maarten. What is the worst that could happen?
Tuesday, September 5th
We awoke this morning, with an alarm from the National Weather Center indicating Irma had grown overnight into a Category 5 + hurricane with potential for 160mph+ winds and was headed directly towards Sint Maarten. We were absolutely terrified. At this point the airport was closing within the next 5 hours (2pm), and every flight leaving the island was full and EXTREMELY overpriced. The school sent us out another email warning us to come to Building 2 and warned us of all of the items we would need during and after the storm.
We decided to pack up everything valuable and head to the shelter at school early. Our lives were more important than all the stupid stuff I had just bought for school in several bags.
Things we packed for the shelter included…
PASSPORT, ID, cash, credit cards
Fully charged electronics and charger
Canned food and nonperishable snacks
Blow up mattress, blanket, pillows
Everything else we left behind in our apartment. We then “hurricane proofed the apartment”. We put down the hurricane shutters. Moved all the bedroom items in the closet and taped it the closet shut with most of the other belongings. Taped up all the front windows and placed towels under the door and windows. Taped all the kitchen cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer shut. We security bolted the door and headed to the shelter around 12pm.
We got to the shelter early enough to find a spot right next to the stage in the auditorium to blow up our air mattress. Most people who had air mattresses forgot to bring a pump to blow it up… fortunately we had a built in pump. Also for all those people who forgot or didn’t have a pump, we used a hair dryer. Don’t knock it til you try it. As we sat in the shelter having a sandwich from the local deli we were excited.. We didn’t know what to expect. And since we never experienced a hurricane, we felt completely prepared.
At 5pm we had another meeting with an update, Hurricane Irma had strengthened further. She was expected to have 185mph sustained winds with gusts up to 225mph. She had officially broken all records previously in the Atlantic. As I sprayed canned cheese on a Ritz cracker, I started to feel absolutely terrified. I had no idea what 225 mph winds looked like. I had never been in a hurricane let alone the biggest one to ever hit the Atlantic. Officially all classes and our white coat ceremony were cancelled, but my mind continued to race. Shortly after, we had an announcement for all people with previous medical background and experience to volunteer to help the search and rescue and makeshift operating room. During the storm, we were supposed to be prepping for all those people that could be hurt during or after the storm. I immediately signed up. And so did Michael, even without experience, so he could assist the lifting crew getting patients up and down stairs and assisting with the evacuation crew.
We met in the hallway outside the auditorium to see how many people actually had experience and how many people just wanted to help the lifting crew. Most people who were on the island were all first semester students who had absolutely zero medical background. Fortunately we did have some EMT’s, paramedics, RNs, and medical assistants ready to jump in. We also had 4 different physicians who were ready to create a make shift operating room in our teaching facility. Different surgeons we had either by staff or parents included - an OBGYN, general surgeon, plastic surgeon, and anesthesiologist. I don’t know how we could get so lucky to have such a diverse group of physicians and students to create a pretty incredible 1st responder/ER/Surgical team. We started planning for the worst. This went from 0 to 100 REAL quick.
The disaster planning began with triage and potentially marking patients for - Green, Yellow, Red, Black..
Green: Very minimal injury: small laceration, nail puncture wound, cough, headache, UTI, etc.
Yellow: Broken limb, larger laceration
Red: Critical injury needing surgery; stabbing chest wound, extremely large laceration, etc.
Black: Too critical for our capabilities available in our makeshift or deceased
Talking about possible people walking in or being carried in that we couldn’t help survive was the hardest information to absorb. It was a lot of information to take in. My immediate thought went straight to the Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor marking the heads of war victims with red lipstick. I’m from California — we don't DO natural disasters. Our earthquakes aren’t even THAT bad. I had no idea what to expect. Could it really get that bad? We had to prepare for the worst, and hope for the absolute best. I knew that I could use my background to help me take care of these patients but I had never been relied on so heavily before this moment. I was just a medical assistant and scribe in an Emergency Department from little ol' Lodi, CA, but I wanted to do everything in my power to help. I was assigned to lead a search and rescue team which included 6 fellow male students and Michael immediately following the storm. We were planning to evacuate students and those injured by the storm in the locals apartments around the school. We were to make sure those students who did not come to the shelter were okay and not injured. Most of the men on my team had no medical background, but learned quickly how to tie tunicates and carry patients back to the school safely if need be - via our practice drills during the storm. At around 10:30pm, we had gone through many scenarios and were going to finally try to get some rest before the storm hit. Michael and I laid down on our air mattress surrounded by 300+ students trying to sleep. I could hear many people’s faint snores so peaceful without a care in the world. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think of anything but how possible horrible the next 48 hours could be. I stared at the ceiling… for what seemed like hours.
At 11pm we started hearing the howling of the winds. BUT wind speed really didn’t kick up until about 2am. At that point, there was no sleeping.
Wednesday, September 6th
When the storm winds finally hit, it was so incredibly loud. It sounded like you were surrounded by 10 VERY noisy dishwashers -- that’s the best I got. Watching the winds and gusts howl past the windows in Building 2 was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Michael and I sat there in awe. We did not sleep at all. We started snap chatting our friends and texting our parents pictures of the beginning of the storm. At around 4am, the WiFi shut down and so did the cellular service. The last text we received was from Michaels uncle who said..
“Hey, I heard winds past 185mph are when 2x4’s can go through concrete”. This didn’t exactly calm our nerves. Not to mention we couldn’t google it to see if it was true… Hopefully this building is as good as they keep telling us.
At around 5am, we were sitting in the auditorium when we started to smell fumes. We notified security, who came down to the bottom of the auditorium to investigate. This is when we started to really get worried… The reason being, if something caught fire or the fumes caused anyone to start feeling light headed we had absolutely no where to go. We couldn’t go outside because there were 185mph sustained winds at this time. Michael and I decided to go the furthest away from the stage that we could. We somehow landed in the very back of the first floor at the teachers lounge. Nobody was there.. There were couches and chairs with a little kitchen. It was perfect. We sat on the floor just starring at the windows. We couldn’t see out them. It was just a wall of water.
Until suddenly it stopped. Almost immediately we could see the destruction the storm had caused. We could see a catamaran on a small island in the middle of the bay, the guard tower had completely blown away at the back of the school, trees were completely blown down or gone all together. As we continued starring outside, we started seeing people running toward the cars from the hotel across the way. The people started bashing car windows with sticks and grabbing anything they could find. The looting had begun. Security at the school started yelling at the locals with no luck. About 10 minutes into the eye, security ran to the dorm rooms and evacuated all the student still housed in the dorms. The top floor of the dorms had completely collapsed, and other parts of the building were starting to deteriorate. They evacuated approximately 30 students that remained in the dorms including some people with cats and dogs.
After an hour and thirty minutes after the calm, the winds picked up right where they left off 185mph with 225mph gusts. Almost immediately, we were back in the wall of water. Michael and I continued to sit in the hallway near the teachers lounge. We didn’t know what to expect. We just sat there hoping it wasn’t as bad as we thought it could be.
At 3pm, the winds finally subsided. Our search and rescue team was ready to go to the building and begin evacuation. We grabbed our team and went to the local apartments to see if anyone needed any medical attention. As we walked outside, it felt like we had time traveled. Nothing looked the same. Roofing on almost every building was gone. Trees were completely knocked down. Debre lay in all roadways. Cars were flipped upside down. A helicopter was between an apartment complex and fencing. Almost all railings to every apartment and store were gone. Sint Maarten went from the most beautiful island I had ever seen to being completely destroyed in a matter of 14 hours. Every single building was completely damaged. We continued to walk around and talk to many of the locals and some tourists. We walked past Jordan Village Apartments (located very close to the school), where we saw several people breaking into the Carre Four Express Supermarket looting the building with grocery carts full of food and supplies. We continued to walk… Once we got to Rainbow Beach Club Apartments and Hotel, we saw many people outside talking to neighbors about their experience during the storm. Most of the apartments had been completely blown through and most people had to bunker down in their bathrooms with a mattress over their heads for several hours. One woman ran up to us with her 12-year-old daughter telling us she was staying with a friend and had not heard from her boyfriend. She told us she didn’t know what happened with her home. She looked to her left, and saw her boyfriend several yards away. She told her daughter to stay with us and ran toward her boyfriend. We stood there for 20 minutes talking to the young girl. She was very calm, but told us she was staying with a friend because it was safer than her home. When the mom came back over to us she completely broke down as she told us her entire home was destroyed. She stated her home had been completely blown away and remnants of her home weren’t even on the property. I held her in my arms as she wept. I had never seen anyone so distraught. She kept repeating, “How could this happen? What can I do now? I’ve lost absolutely everything”. We encouraged her to come to the shelter at the school and we could at least feed her and her daughter until it was safe from looters. I was almost speechless. There was nothing I could say to comfort this woman and her daughter. She said she would make her way back to the shelter. We left the woman and her daughter as they headed back to their friends house.
As we started to head back to the school, we noticed that most of the roadways leading to the school were blocked. Many people who would be trying to get to the school would be unable to arrive to the campus due to the roadways. The ocean had gone up past the golf course and we became a smaller island on an island. We were almost completely surrounded by water in a 2 mile radius. We also heard of a mud slide occurring on the island immediately following the storm which potentially cost many people their lives. There were over a thousand US citizens on the island of Sint Maarten when Irma hit. This was not shown on the news what-so-ever.
We ran into other search and rescue teams and thankfully they didn’t find anyone who was badly injured. Most of the people who were injured were people with minor lacerations, nails in their feet, or chronic symptoms. When we made it back to the school, I assisted with minor medical problems with locals or students who needed care.
After several hours, it was dinner time. Michael and I sat on our air mattress eating some of the food we brought from our apartment. We had a meeting that night, which stated we had a curfew of 8pm. We could not leave the campus after that time or we would be arrested or shot by the Dutch Government. We had to wear our badges at all times and so did our guests. The team now had to start planning for an evacuation. We didn’t have any information other than that. None of our phones had service, and our WiFi had completely turned off. There was no communication other than the people locked in Building 2 with us. They took pictures of all the students and sent them to headquarters with a satellite phone to inform parents that we were safe. I continued to check in with the medical group and help out when needed. We set up shifts to operate during different times of the day. Each person would work 8 hour shifts with 24 hours off. I was assigned to the 9am-5pm.
Michael and I laid in our blow up mattress completely exhausted. Thank god, one of our friends gave us both a pair of ear plugs, so we didn’t have to listen to 300+ people snoring. I slept so hard that night… I hadn’t slept in 48 hours. I couldn’t even keep my eyelids open. I guess this is one way to get ready for residency.
Thursday, September 7th
I woke up at 9am feeling much better than the night before. It felt like we had been in the auditorium for a week and it was only two nights. I put on a pair of scrubs and headed up to the medical group. We sat in the front of the building waiting to see if any patients would came in. We had a couple more major patients. One man came in with a complete skin tear from his shoulder, chest, and upper abdomen. We sent him straight to the plastic surgeon to be repaired. We had another patient who presented with severe hyperglycemia due to DKA due to previously diagnosed DM II — type 2 diabetes. She was non compliant with many of her medications. She had several other complications that we did not have all the proper medications to treat. A student also ended up breaking her ankle and was carried into the makeshift medical office. She was sent straight to the physicians. Most of the patients I ended up treating were students or family of students who had stepped on nails while getting the rest of their belongings from their apartments. We eventually were able to transfer our more critical patients on Saturday to a local hospital once the roads were cleared. It was interesting to me to see how many people were injured a couple days after the storm due to debre compared to those hurt during the storm. Many people were injured in the following days after the storm that we treated.
Once I had finished caring for patients, Michael and I headed to my apartment expecting to find the worst - my apartment completely blown through and all my remaining stuff gone. When we got to the apartment complex we were in shock. It was surprisingly in good shape compared to the other complexes. My apartment complex was located in an older complex known as Aventura. It didn’t look as structurally sound as some of the newer complexes, BUT it probably held up the best. There also didn’t seem to be much looting in my apartment complex. We carefully walked up the broken stairs with torn off railings to the second floor. None of my windows were broken. My door had some water damage but the security bolt held the door tightly. The salt water stuck in the door made it extremely difficult to open. When we finally unlocked my apartment we found it almost exactly how we had left it - besides the inch of water on the floor. All of our hurricane prep we did to my apartment completely paid off. We gathered up the rest of my belongings (at least what we could fit in a suitcase and take on a plane). We also took all of my food from the refrigerator and freezer back to school to donate to the cafeteria to make meals for the students and any of the locals staying in the shelter. We left the rest of the things in my apartment, knowing I would never use or see the items again. 2 large suitcases and 2 carry on’s later we were completely moved out only 8 days after moving in. I never thought this was going to happen.. I left my apartment reminiscing on the incredible few days leading up the hurricane as I waded may way through debre to get back to the campus. As we were passing back through to the building, my phone received service with MAYBE one bar. Text messages and calls came pouring into my phone as I began to get service.
That evening, another meeting with the members of the AUC faculty occurred. AUC faculty encouraged students to remain calm and continued to proclaim that they were working on an evacuation plan. They didn’t have answers for anyone because the airport was completely closed. The airport was destroyed and there was too much debre in the runway for any plane to land. The options the school were proposing for possible evacuations were -- chartered boats, chartered planes, or military planes. Students and parents were starting to argue back with faculty. They were getting relentless with the faculty with every question imaginable. Looters were intensifying and this was scaring some of the refugees stuck in Building 2. They encouraged everyone to bring all their food to the cafeteria for students and faculty to cook for everyone. They concluded the meeting with saying that Hurricane Jose was also heading to us and could interrupt our evacuation planned. Let’s just say… students and family were not happy.
That evening we got HOT FOOD. I had never been more excited to wait in an hour and a half line for a 1/2 cup of rice and beans and one tiny slice of chicken. Complaining did not come from anyone -- at least I didn’t hear any. Everyone was so excited to get something hot that didn’t feel like it was from a cold can. It was absolutely fantastic.
Michael and I slept on the air mattress listening to whispers and snores of 300 people. How was this becoming normal for us?
Friday, September 8th
I continued to help with the medical crew, but at this point, there were not many people coming in with any injuries.
As we were eating a small breakfast, we heard that looters had broken into the cafeteria and stolen some of the food. Michael and I helped move some of the boxes of food and other items from the AUC Student Store to a secret room in Building One hoping it would not get broken into again. We amped up security by having volunteer guard the building so the looters were no longer able to break in without someone seeing. Security at the school re-enforced the front gate and students and family were only allowed to leave to grab belongings before the curfew set by the Dutch Government.
Looting was beginning to increase. It was even rumored that on the French side of the island a group of looters broke into the police station and stole weapons - unknown if this actually happened. We started to worry about our safety in Building 2. Could it eventually become compromised? The amount of medical supplies, water, and food needed to be shared with other people on the island who lost everything in the storm. We wanted to evacuate as soon as possible so we could give shelter to those that needed it. We packed up all our stuff we thought we were going to be able to bring on the chartered plane - one large suitcase. We repacked out little carry ons with things we didn’t find useful.
That evening, we set up another meeting. The faculty confirmed that the charter would not be arriving that day. They were waiting on word from the military for evacuation. And they had not found any boats to charter to any island around Sint Maarten. We had to wait… We didn’t know when we were going to be evacuated.
With everyone upset after the meeting, we decided to unwind and try to take our minds off of the evacuation. We sat in a small classroom and decided to watch a movie. We sat there letting our minds wander about anything else other than HOW THE HE** are we getting off this island.
Saturday, September 9th
We woke up at 5 o’clock to faculty and student volunteers yelling all women with children get to the front of Building 2 with a backpack. That is all you can carry onto the military plane. Within 30 minutes, all the women with children were scurrying to the front door with VERY few belongings. They left their large suitcases and not to mention significant others in Building 2. They were gone very quickly.
Quickly after, the AUC staff planned another meeting. They informed students that USA military planes were evacuating all the US citizens to Puerto Rico hopefully within the next 24 hours. They did not know if Hurricane Jose was going to interfere with the evacuation plans, but at that time Jose wouldn’t be too close to us. We did not know when we were going to evacuate but hoped we would be leaving soon. Soon faculty started calling all women to get in line outside Building 2. I wouldn’t leave without Michael. The second they called for all women and men we jumped in line. Any medical student that was not a US citizen had to wait at the school until they could find another way to get off of the island. Many of the US citizens also stayed behind to keep the school safe and the medical team moving in case there were any more injuries or any issues with security.
As Michael and I got into a small Hyundai with all four windows smashed in we started driving towards the airport. The amount of damage continued to amaze me. The ocean tide had moved into the island about one or two entire football fields. The entire strip we were shopping just a week before had been completely blown through. The airport fencing was gone. Many of the buildings were gone. So many looters were running from store to store. When we arrived to the airport, we were greeted by Dutch and US military.
We saw a beautiful view of 3 magnificent HC-130 US military cargo planes awaiting our boarding. As we stepped through the gusts of winds from the propeller into the cabin of the plane we were overwhelmed with emotion. The US flag hung proud in the front of the cabin. I couldn’t have felt more proud of our country in that moment. The military personnel was incredibly kind to us — they held a paper sheet with the hashtag #nystrong. After communicating with one soldier he told me they were apart of the air national guard based in New York City. They were just as excited as we were to finally get us evacuated. I am eternally grateful for their kindness and support as we flew to Puerto Rico. They offered chips and snacks and we sat on the floor of the HC-130 cargo plane. A quick 45 minute plane ride and we landed in Puerto Rico. Once we landed a sigh of relief washed over me.
As we sat in Puerto Rico terminal, I hugged Michael as we saw the extreme support from our country and our relief organizations. The Red Cross greeted us with personal cheeseburger's with fries and pizza -- yes it tasted as close to heaven as you could imagine. I had never been so excited to eat a cheeseburger in my entire life. We were then shuttled to an incredibly nice nearby hotel in San Juan.
The people of San Juan were sincere and nice to us and made sure our transition to their hotel was very smooth. The hotel staff was very aware of our arrival and answered as many questions we needed. We stayed the night at Condado Plaza Hilton for a night before we made our way to Chicago. The next day many of our fellow classmates arrived to Puerto Rico by HC-130 military planes. Other students with pets, Canadian, or other foreign national were evacuated by TINY fishing boats. I know the boats were extremely rocky and some animals died through the journey. They eventually arrived at Sint Kitts, and were chartered to Chicago, IL.
Once we arrived to Chicago, students had so many questions for AUC:
What happens with medical school?
Where will school be?
Are we moving to another island?
Can we stay in the states?
The biggest problem was so many people had suffered emotional trauma. Many people were in shock and could not discuss what they had experienced. I personally knew I was having a hard time discussing what had truly happened during my time on Sint Maarten. I believe the thing that was not broadcasted in the media or by many people that experienced the storm was the strong and admirable people during and after Hurricane Irma. There is so many good people that did their absolute best to make sure we had everything we could to survive and feel as comfortable as we possibly could from the beginning to the end. Most people were 100% unselfish and put their time, sleep, energy, heart into helping everyone around them. It truly made me appreciate and admire many of my fellow medical students, teachers, faculty, deans, the community and incredible citizens of Sint Maarten, Air Force (especially the 106th rescue wing), the Red Cross and SO many more people involved in the evacuation. There were so many people that did everything in their power to make sure we were safe before and after we were rescued. I have never felt more love in my life than the day I had cell reception. 200+ text messages from all the people that I loved and some that I haven’t talked to in years came pouring in with concerns of my safety. These are the things that go unnoticed… There ARE good people that want what’s best for you. There are SO many people rooting for us medical students to succeed and become incredibly well rounded physicians. Students had to make the decision what was best for their future - many students deferred, dropped, or decided to continue their education with AUC. This experience has only made me grow as a person. I believe I am only stronger from this experience, and it will only allow me to become a better physician. Although this experience changed my perspective for the better, I decided what was best for me was continuing to follow my dream and move where the school decided to relocate.