Vermont doctor expects challenge in disaster zone
MONTPELIER – Townshend physician Robert Backus travels annually to the Amazon to practice medicine on a river boat.
He expects those jungle conditions to seem futuristic compared to what he will find when he soon travels to the hurricane-ravaged region of the Gulf Coast.
Backus is among the first Vermont doctors to volunteer to travel to Louisiana, Alabama or Mississippi to treat victims of Hurricane Katrina. He is not yet sure where he will be asked to serve, but no matter where he goes it will present a challenge, he said.
"It will not nearly be as difficult in the Amazon as where I am going," Backus said. "There are more difficult conditions in Louisiana. We are pretty well organized in the Amazon."
Backus signed up to treat hur-ricane victims after the Vermont Health Department in conjunction with the Vermont Medical Society put out a call Friday for volunteers.
The state is looking for primary care doctors, emergency physicians, surgeons, epidemiologists, nurses and respiratory therapists to sign up for seven-to-14 day assignments.
The call was put out Friday after the Gulf Coast chapters of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact asked all states to compile a list of medical professionals willing to help if needed.
"We don't have commitments to send anyone anyplace yet," said Duncan Higgins, director of the compact's Vermont chapter, which is an arm of Vermont Emergency Management. "What we have been asked to do at this time is strictly to compile an inventory of who is willing and able to go."
Health Department spokesman Robert Stirewalt said the state was not prepared Friday to say how many medical professionals had volunteered. More information will be available Tuesday, he said.
The hurricane-hit region will need medical assistance for months if not years, said Paul Harrington, executive vice president of the Vermont Medical Society. Local doctors and nurses will likely be asked to serve throughout that time as needed, he said.
"I would expect they would send volunteers down there on a rolling schedule," Harrington said. "They would not be there all at once."
Higgins said volunteers must be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours and willing to be exposed to "a pretty harsh environment" that could include working around raw sewage and other health hazards.
Backus, a 63-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer, called that "standard procedure" for emergency relief service.
"It's all about supplies, staffing and working conditions," Backus said. "I expect all of the above will be difficult."
Backus said he had no preference on where or when to serve. He will leave his practice at Grace Cottage Hospital to travel to flooded New Orleans, the ravaged shores of Mississippi or anywhere else emergency officials set up a medical team.
Experience "tells me to expect the unexpected, and that is all I expect," Backus said. "I will do whatever they want, wherever they send me."
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