When disaster strikes, many stare at images of the destruction helpless. Dr. Mark Macgowan packs his bags and heads out to help
Recovery after a natural disaster is a process, one that begins with tending to wounds and picking up debris. Dr. Macgowan focuses on healing the mind. He is the associate dean of academic affairs for the Florida International University Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, a professor of social work — and a licensed clinical social worker who serves on one of Florida’s Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, FL-5.
“Before Hurricane Michael made landfall in the panhandle, we were already waiting in Jacksonville for the storm to pass so that we could get there and start helping,” Dr. Macgowan said. “While my colleagues on FL-5 are there to tend to the physical wounds from the storms, the injuries that can quickly be seen, I am there for a different type of healing. I help with the shock, the anxiety and the sadness.”
Working 12-hour shifts from dawn to dusk, Dr. Macgowan saw hundreds of patients in the 12 days he was deployed to Panama City.
After a traumatic event, it is important for individuals to be able to share their experience as part of the healing process. If survivors don’t have the opportunity to talk about it, it can come out in other ways. Many people may have persistent thoughts or may have trouble sleeping. Over time, more resilient people may recover on their own but the healing process is accelerated by talking it out and sharing the experience.
“I try to help the patients I see past their trauma by getting them to focus on the here and now — reminding them that the disaster is over. Michael is gone. It’s gone forever. They’re in a safe environment and they’re not going to get hurt again by this hurricane,” continued Dr. Macgowan.
“For my patients, my stethoscope is the box of tissues in my pocket.”
As part of a more than 30-person group sent to help survivors after Hurricane Michael, Dr. Macgowan was the only mental health provider on his team. His job was twofold: helping the patients begin the mental healing process and helping his colleagues deal with the traumatic conditions so they could continue to assist patients.
“I saw patients who were still processing what had happened to them and just needed someone to talk to and others who needed more detailed assistance…. It’s difficult because, for the most part, I don’t have a chance for a follow-up,” he said.
Dr. Macgowan added: “I was also there for my colleagues, so that they had someone to talk to or vent to when they were getting overwhelmed or stressed.”
He taught his team an acronym to recognize when they needed help or a break, H.A.L.T. (hungry, angry, lonely or tired). It was his way of reminding the FL-5 team to take a moment for themselves, to decompress during the high-adrenaline, stressful stay.
When Dr. Macgowan and his team left on Oct. 20, 10 days after the storm made landfall, there was still no electricity or running water in much of Panama City. Many of the city’s primary care functions were still not up-and-running, like pharmacies or urgent care centers.
“While many focus on the negatives, we need to look at this as a healing process. Humans can rebuild and become stronger in the process. Some will need more help than others will – and that can help to create a sense of community. Those who lived through it can have a realization that they have survived something that is bigger than themselves, and they can draw on that strength to move on.”