By Barbara Wood
A registered nurse from Sunnyvale, Mary Ann Reilly had been volunteering for the American Red Cross for only eight months when she got a call to help at a shelter set up to assist people evacuated from their San Jose area homes because of storm-related flooding.
"I was literally the only RN there, and I knew nothing about what was going on," she recalls of her arrival at the James Lick High School shelter, on Feb. 22, the day after the Red Cross opened it. But her nursing instincts — honed while teaching San Jose State University nursing students — took over: "Look, see, do." In other words, assess the situation and figure out how to pitch in.
Reilly did that so well that the next day she was put in charge of the health services operation at the shelter.
Liz Dietz, who has volunteered for the American Red Cross for 37 years, was also there to provide veteran leadership.
"This is not an unusual shelter," Dietz said. "The kind of care our clients have needed is commonplace given the high stress and sudden evacuation orders," she says, adding that the medical team had seen people with cardiac and kidney problems, as well as people contaminated by floodwaters. Red Cross shelters make every attempt to support all but individuals who are considered medically fragile, such as those who are immunosuppressed or on dialysis.
The American Red Cross has a supply of what it calls "access and functional needs cots," Dietz adds. "We beg, borrow and steal whatever we can" to supply things such as canes, crutches, walkers or oxygen.
"Our new expression," Dietz says, "is get to yes."
In addition to working at the shelters, the Red Cross also had health services volunteers at the Local Assistance Center that the City of San Jose organized in the days following the flooding; the LACs, with representatives present from multiple agencies, provide clients with easy access to a range of services. Health Services volunteers also were available at the Silicon Valley Chapter and were among the Red Cross teams distributing food and supplies to those affected by the flood, Dietz says.
Disaster Health Services is one of the Red Cross functions that is almost always needed in a disaster. Volunteers are all licensed medical professionals. In San Jose, the health services volunteers worked at the shelter in two 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, with a least three volunteers on each shift.
Initially, Reilly says, they helped replace prescription medications or medical equipment that had been lost in the flooding. Later, they helped with anything from providing over-the-counter drugs such as cold medicine or painkillers, and referred shelter residents to local medical facilities if they had more serious problems.
They distributed hand sanitizer, antiseptic wipes, and tissues and urged shelter residents and workers to wash their hands frequently.
They sent residents who had been contaminated by the flood waters to get cleaned up, including a few who had to be hospitalized.
They resolved issues such as how to make high school gym showers without partitions work for people who wanted a little privacy. "We had to find screens and hang blankets," Reilly says.
By March 2, after working 12-hour-shifts for 11 consecutive days, Reilly ended her deployment — feeling exhausted but rewarded.
"I find these people amazingly resilient," she says, reflecting on the shelter residents. "They are resourceful. They're supportive and protective of one another."
Reilly also says the Red Cross volunteers encounter only a few disgruntled people. "Some are frustrated because things aren't happening as fast as they want them to," she says. "But they are grateful for the things they can obtain."
Among her favorite moments: "Having a baby smile at you who had cried for everyone else. Having two women laugh tears for no reason at all, and then apologize for it."
Reilly says she also treasured her fellow Red Cross volunteers at the San Jose shelter, some of whom were from the Bay Area and some from other parts of California or other western states. "The co-workers are so supportive," she says. They ended up working together "like a well-oiled machine, even though we didn't know each other when we started."
"I think it stems from an individual's belief that he or she can help someone in distress, no matter how small or how big their need," Reilly says.
"The team of workers are very respectful to the environment we are in," Reilly adds, because the shelter locations are "borrowed space." At the Seven Trees Community Center, a dance/exercise studio — complete with mirrors, bars, steppers, exercise bikes, and boxing gloves — had become the medical center.
Dietz is particularly proud of how the Red Cross uses its funds. "We utilize every penny that is donated for our clients," she says. "We use all the [local] agencies we can and try to get them to the right care at the right place," she says.
"I'm exhausted," Dietz adds, after working repeated 12-hour shifts. "I think I had a day off somewhere."
"I'm 70 years old," she says. "But there was a big need and things needed to be done."
Photo caption: American Red Cross volunteers (left to right) Mary Ann Reilly, Liz Dietz, Shirley Toth, and Judy Esteban work to sort the mountain of diapers donated for those affected by the San Jose floods.