October 31, 2012

Erin Mullen

Dr. Erin Mullen is the Director of the Rx Response program. She is a pharmacist, emergency manager, and disaster responder.

Hurricane Andrew Anniversary Recalls Rx Response Director’s Brush with Disaster

It was 20 years ago today that I was huddled in an interior bathroom in South Florida with my fiancé, my sister’s roommate and two golden retrievers. We had the radio tuned to hear local meteorologist Bryan Norcross’ voice through the dark hours, but it wasn’t loud enough to drown out the howling wind and random thumps and crashes against the house. We were scared when the front doors blew open and the glass in the French doors shattered. But our scariest moment came when we realized how close we’d all come to losing consciousness.

At 4 am, with a burning candle and the anxious breathing of three adults and two dogs in the small space of the bathroom, we’d depleted far more oxygen than any of us had realized. Despite my training as a pharmacist, I didn’t realize that we could have passed out soon if we didn’t ventilate the room. It was my fiancé who recognized that something was wrong, and he cracked open the door. The candle’s flame immediately grew brighter, fueled by the surge of fresh air. We looked at each other, wide-eyed and silent, contemplating what might have been if he hadn’t acted. Hurricane Andrew wasn’t the first hurricane I’d experienced, but it was like nothing I’d been through before. I’d just returned to my native Miami, FL home from 5 years in Pharmacy school in Boston. Two days later, I was evacuating from my mother’s townhouse in South Dade County to my sister’s home in West Kendall, where we rode out the storm in that cramped bathroom. Heeding that evacuation order was a life saver; my mother’s house, and almost all of our belongings in it, was destroyed. But, at the age of 23, I learned a very important lesson – it’s only stuff. Even though all of my family had damaged houses and major losses, no one was injured; we considered ourselves very lucky.

This life changing experience has brought me to where I am today. I joined a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) a few years later to be able to give back to those who came to take care of my community in the aftermath of the storm. After my first deployment to help the victims of Hurricane Charley, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: devote myself and my professional skills as a pharmacist to the cause of increased disaster preparedness and response. Serving as the Rx Response director has provided me with the perfect opportunity to realize this goal. With the launch of our new blog, the whole Rx Response team will be sharing our knowledge and experiences in the hope that citizens, pharmacists, and members of the bio-pharmaceutical supply system will continue to take steps to be ready for the next incident that will head your way, whether large or small.

As a parting thought, for anyone who might find themselves in the path of a hurricane, or any disaster for that matter, I’d like to share some of the funnier lessons my family and I learned from Hurricane Andrew. Despite what was at times a truly harrowing experience, I’m glad that even then, and 20 years since, we still find some humor in it all.

  • Just because the water service has been restored, that doesn’t mean the washing machine’s going to work! (No lie, I was so happy the water was back after a week, I loaded up the washer, poured in the soap, and…waited. It took several minutes to have that smack-my-forehead realization that the power had to be restored too!)
  • If you’re dirty and sweaty enough, you will risk a swim in a lake that might have an alligator in it.
  • When you’re evacuating your home, bring ALL of your underwear. It’s the clean article of clothing you’ll miss the most, and it doesn’t take up that much room.
  • If you’re a caffeine addict, keep powdered coffee or iced tea mix in your disaster kit. The caffeine withdrawal headaches make it that much harder.

While my suggestions are meant in part to make you laugh, disaster preparedness is no joking matter, as we all learned in that small cramped bathroom 20 years ago. If you’d like more information on how to better prepare your home and family for all types of disasters, I encourage you to visit the Red Cross’ website or FEMA’s website. I also recommend while you’re visiting the site that you take a moment and fill out the Downloadable Prescription Medication Wallet Card. Just in case of an emergency, you’ll find it helpful to know your current medications. Thanks for visiting the new Rx Response Blog, which is residing temporarily on the Rx Response newsroom while our website undergoes some modifications, including the creation of a stand-alone Blog. Stay tuned for more posts in the days ahead from me and my fellow Rx Response colleagues.

Erin Mullen, R.Ph., PhD, Director, Rx Response

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