Pregnancy and natural disasters: 7 ways to be prepared
August 29, 2015 marks the 10-year anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. I was a third year medical student in New Orleans when this storm struck, and even though I had not yet done my OB/GYN rotation I had a feeling that was where I was headed. Since my career and this storm are quite linked in my mind, recalling this time and reviewing how pregnant women can prepare for natural disasters is something I think all pregnant women should at least be aware of.
On that day, I was in a hotel room in St. Louis, Missouri with my then-boyfriend (now husband). We had evacuated just the day prior, waiting to the last minute because we honestly didn’t think the storm was going to give New Orleans a direct hit. Blame it on ignorant optimism and being too busy finishing a surgery rotation to have time to pay attention to the weather …
Thankfully we managed to get out of town, almost running out of gas on the way out of the city and nearly ending up stranded on the roadside. I remember waking in the very early morning hours of August 29, turning on the news, and hearing that the storm had made landfall, but the levees held. I went back to bed quite relieved and assuming we’d head back home in the next day or so, which was good because I only packed three days worth of clothes and besides, my psychiatry rotation would be starting, and naturally I didn’t want to miss any of it.
The tune changed when, a few hours later, we learned that the levees did break and the city was under water. I remember thinking, We are not going home anytime soon. Where do we go from here? Our medical school had flooded. Charity Hospital was a disaster. We lost contact with our school because the computer servers were underwater, and this was two years before the iPhone was released.
The short version of what came next seems almost surreal to me now that I can look back on it: we ended up going to Houston, Texas, where our medical school regrouped. I borrowed clothes and medical supplies and lived in a house with seven classmates, where all our furniture was rented and every night we said, “Is this really happening to us?!” I didn’t go back to New Orleans until January and it was a very different place than when I left. My Emergency Department rotation was done in Army tents in an abandoned Lord and Taylor store. A military helicopter almost landed on my car once. You know, normal stuff.
But I was lucky. I was not pregnant or undergoing complex medical care at the time that the storm hit. Many patients suffered setbacks in their care because they didn’t get the treatments they needed, and we know that many women who were pregnant at the time of Katrina had higher rates of complications.
My take home lesson from this storm (besides always have a full tank of gas)? Be prepared. If you are pregnant and live in an area where natural disasters can strike — and really, can’t they happen anywhere? — here’s what you can do to ensure you still get the care you and your baby need:
1. Keep your ID and insurance card on you at all times.
2. In addition to the above, keep a packet of medical information that you can quickly grab if you need to evacuate. This should include copies of your ID and insurance info, contact numbers (including fax numbers) of your doctor and hospital, and copies of your medical records.
3. About those medical records: try to keep updated ultrasound reports and lab tests specific to your pregnancy, as well as any other medical problems you may have. While many of these are accessible online, they might not be reachable if the servers go under like ours did with Katrina. Some practices let you access your own electronic records and results regularly – print out yours after every visit or take screen shots on your phone.
4. Don’t let medications or supplies run low. For example, if you have gestational diabetes, make sure you’ve always got enough lancets and test strips on hand so you don’t miss days or weeks of blood sugar testing because you can’t access your doctor for a refill.
5. When making an evacuation plan, find the numbers of the local hospital, and make sure it has a Labor and Delivery. There’s nothing worse than being a stranger in town and showing up to a hospital in active labor where there are no OB/GYNs doing deliveries! Know that you can never be refused emergent care for your pregnancy, so don’t hesitate to go in if you need to.
6. Also, if you end up missing scheduled appointments while evacuated, call local OB/GYN offices to see if they will make an exception and see you (you can get these numbers also by calling Labor and Delivery of a hospital or looking online beforehand). If no one will see you, this is another time when going to Labor and Delivery is appropriate. While this isn’t normally the best place for a prenatal visit, in a situation such as this you need to make sure you and your baby are doing OK.