Surviving Hurricane Maria: A professor’s story (Part 2)

Previously in our story…Hurricane Maria had just ravaged the island nation of Dominica

Flag of Saint Kitts and Nevis

While I waited, my school did what many said could not be done. Our staff and administration arranged for us to be able to complete the fall semester, on the only-lightly damaged island of St. Christopher (usually called St. Kitts), which had been grazed by both Irma and Maria.  They arranged for a large passenger ship which normally ferried cars and people from Italy to Spain and back to sail over to the Caribbean and be modified into a floating campus for our thousand-plus student body for the rest of the year.  They arranged for temporary accommodations for faculty and staff on St. Kitts, where our other sister school, Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (10), is located.  They revised the schedule to have us resume our semester in October and finish in early January.  And then they set these plans in motion.

In mid-October, I finally got the notice I’d been waiting for, my reporting day to arrive on St. Kitts for my temporary assignment there.  I’d lived on St. Kitts before while working at one of my former schools, so I knew that it wasn’t the same as Dominica.  It was wealthier, far wealthier, with so many cruise ships coming to call during high season that we were almost an afterthought to them.  It had the movie theater and the golf courses and the high-end hotels, and the island infrastructure to handle the mass of tourists who came and went by the planeload and shipload every day.  But on the same token, in Dominica we were a part of the community, we were welcomed by the people, and we were careful to try to be good neighbors.  In St. Kitts, we were mostly treated like tourists, who were perhaps staying a little longer than usual, and on a ship that wasn’t going to sail away with us.  Most of the Kittitians were still the very friendly people you can find everywhere in the Caribbean, of course, but it wasn’t Dominica and I knew it before I arrived.  We faculty were to arrive a few days before the students to get situated and find places to live on the island while the student accommodations/our campus continued its journey across the Atlantic to our new home away from home.

Belle Mont Farm Eco-Resort

When I got to St. Kitts, it was…a pleasant surprise.  It wasn’t half as hard to get through customs as I had feared, and the Marriott is a nice hotel.  We stayed there a day or two before the students started to arrive.  To make room for the students, most of the faculty were moved to an eco-resort on the far side of St. Kitts for about a week, which opened in its off-season just for us.  While I appreciated their going above and beyond on our behalf, I only stayed one night before moving into an apartment in town. I just wanted to unpack my suitcases, settle in somewhere, and get back into a routine.

Because I left the eco-resort so early, I was available to help the students come in on their arrival day.  And come in they did, one charter flight at a time to the airport, and one to three buses (they call them cruisers) at a time to the Marriott.  Tired, bleary-eyed, some clearly still suffering the effects of six or more days on Dominica under indescribable conditions ending in evacuation and weeks of uncertainty, the students came.  You couldn’t help but feel for the ordeal they had survived… or admiration for their grit to return anyway, when a small group of others had taken a leave of absence.  On that day and night when the students came in charter flight after charter flight, wave after wave, a dozen volunteers and I helped each group one by one.  We were the friendly faces from home greeting them after their long ordeal.  We smiled and shook their hands and took their bags inside, helped them through check-in, provided them some simple meals, and tried to make each returning student feel special.  It started for me in the afternoon, and then into the evening, and then into the night, with each group of students arriving more and more exhausted.  By 1 a.m. I was feeling pretty exhausted too, but we kept going until the very last group made it in somewhere close to 2 a.m.

I am told that still more planeloads of students flew in the next morning, but I slept in.  That afternoon, students were being transported from the hotel to the port, where our ship had come in.  The lines were long and the sun was hot and the students just wanted to get inside and get to their new berths.  Many of the faculty who were staying at the eco-resort had come into town that morning to help students move in during the morning/afternoon shift.  I showed up for the afternoon/evening shift.  As we had done the previous day, we volunteers did our very best to keep everyone comfortable at the port, as students went through the tedious process of being identified, cleared to come onto the ship, given berth assignments, and other things past my station at the port.  I made a point to smile and joke and most students appreciated it.  By mid-evening the last students had made it past my sorting station at the dock entrance and headed into the ship, so I stumbled home for another exhausted sleep.

There was a lot more involved in starting work at the temporary campus than just showing up, but I and the other faculty made do.  The ship had just one large cafeteria so we sometimes had to wait in meal lines during its designated breakfast-lunch-dinner times.  Many of the prior amenities on the ship (e.g., a movie theater and a pool deck) had been converted into classroom and study areas before we boarded, and other spaces were modified for student use later.  This included the conversion of an entire deck of the ship which is usually a car garage into an air-conditioned suite of temporary study spaces, clinical exam rooms, and simulation labs. Since the ship spent most days at sea, it was rather crowded at first.  We faculty didn’t have offices per se but like the students we each found our place to be during the day.  My place was at the back of the third semester classroom, in a corner with AC, electric hookups, and a view of the harbor.  I usually teach in second semester as do most physiologists, so I absorbed a lot of clinical applications even as I worked on lectures and active learning sessions, module directing, pre-mini-workshop design, and all the other routines of a typical teaching-oriented school.  And in so doing I, like so many other faculty who don’t get to know a lot of students normally, did connect with many of them.  When we had to get up at 3:30 a.m. to catch the 4:15 a.m. bus to get us to the boat before it sailed at 5:00 a.m. to make room for a set of larger cruise ships throughout the day, we shared in the students’ experience of having to make sure they too were up at the same time, early enough to download their most important materials of the day before we sailed, just in case the harbormaster put us far out at sea.  When the days came that other ships left late and we didn’t dock until 7:30 at night, the students shared that with us too.

Photo: St. Kitts in the morning light, mid-November 2017. Photo credit: Bruce Wright

Along the way, we made time for some activities.  Twice I went scuba diving with fellow members of our RUSM (Med School) Scuba Club (11); others went diving even more regularly.  People organized groups for exercise on the outside deck every morning and night.  There were religious services, club meetings, and other miscellaneous activities on the boat.  Off the boat there was at least one school-planned movie outing, an island tour, and a few students even made it to a “beach bash” hosted by the RUSVM (Vet School) Scuba Club.  More informally, the port facilities were nice as one would expect at a regular Caribbean cruise ship stop, with everything that entails. It became a shared experience of life in close quarters, dedicated to a common purpose and with a common spirit that we would make it through, together and with no drop in our commitment to teaching and learning despite it all.

Would I have traded it for a nice quiet semester in Dominica with no Hurricane Maria in the first place?  Well, sure!  But you have to deal with what life gives you and we made the best of it.  And the quality of the teaching did not go down.  We might have been in close quarters but we delivered virtually the same curriculum in the fall as we had in the previous spring and summer.

By mid-November, air service to Dominica was spotty but running, so I booked a trip there for a few days including Thanksgiving Day.  We’d just found out that we were going to be in Knoxville, Tennessee for the January semester but no one knew much more than that.  While some people started actively looking for places to live, I planned my return to Dominica and hoped the school would handle the Knoxville move for me and many others (it did).  I booked a room at the only hotel open in Portsmouth, Dominica, just in case my cottage was uninhabitable, and then I hoped for the best.

Photo: Sunset in Dominica, late November 2017. Photo credit: Bruce Wright

When I flew in, it was afternoon and, well, the island I loved looked different.  This was now two months after Hurricane Maria did its damage and still the island was brown, not green.  The volcanic ridges were sharp and distinct, and the remains of trees were all over them, standing tall and naked.  But if I looked closely, I could see that at the tops of the trees, leaves had started growing again.  Not enough to cover the scars on the land, not yet, but enough for some hope.  I had the taxi driver take me to my cottage before going to the hotel, and amazingly almost everything had survived.  The food and other perishables were gone with a few other items (e.g., my Swiss army knife), but overall I had a lot of things to ship home.  When someone had built the place he or she had cemented the window frames into the concrete wall for extra strength, which isn’t standard practice anywhere but it worked there.  Whoever it was had also put odd-looking vents under the roof which somehow prevented the roofs from flying.  As a result, though my furniture was flooded at floor level, almost everything else was salvageable.  It was a miracle compared to the sheer devastation we’d driven through from the airport to town.  That night I saw my first sunset on Dominica in many months, and it was beautiful.

Photo: Looking north from Portsmouth, Dominica, Thanksgiving Day 2017. Photo credit: Bruce Wright

I spent the next two days getting almost everything from my cottage packed up and sent to the local shipping agent for transport back to the USA.  Since my office had survived intact (another unexpected blessing) I took a couple of textbooks and other important items from there. But I didn’t take everything. I left most things in my office against the day I would return.  I also took a few photographs. I chose to avoid taking pictures of the damaged areas. Instead I shot photos of things I’d never seen before, like the caved-in side of a cliff face on the mountain north of town that to me looked just like a monkey’s hand.  Along the way I saw the determination of the people to recover even as they all hoped we would be back in May, and I hoped the same thing.  But it was not to be.  As I flew out with my bicycle sold, my cottage empty, and my most essential items from home and office in two suitcases, I was pretty sure that Dominica wouldn’t be ready for us by then.  There were still too many without power, too many living under tarps and in barely-repaired dwellings, too many roofs still off and the insurance companies being slow to pay claims.

The semester ended relatively uneventfully.  The students adjusted to where they were going to be in the spring, and so did I.  Knoxville, Tennessee is a nice southern city with both friendly people and all the movie theaters one could ever want. I even went once!  Most of our students are here with us, though some are still in St. Kitts with some of our faculty.  We’ve learned we’re to be here through the September 2018 semester so we have some sense of permanence.  Though I would love to return to Dominica as soon as possible, having a safe, happy Dominica with functional buildings, power, water, cell service, and the other non-movie theater basics restored is really important too, so I can’t complain.  Here I am, a professor at a medical school in the United States, just like I wanted to be so many years ago.  And whether here or Dominica or anywhere else my fate takes me, I’ll get by.

As I told one of my advisees who was having a bad day last December, in the end a school isn’t buildings at all.  A medical school is its people, medical faculty training students through increasingly difficult tasks until at the end the students have risen up to a higher level, doctors ready to begin their postgraduate medical education journey.  The medical arenas and the classrooms and the simulation labs and the journal collections and the fraternity/sorority homes and even the occasional Italian ship sailing thousands of miles to become a “floating campus” are all just the scaffolding around what is really important.  That one student, his or her classmates, his or her basic science and clinical faculty, and everyone else from the Dean to I.T. to the people washing dishes in the back of the cafeteria who make sure everything else runs…these people are the real school.  They make it possible for that one student to excel.

And that’s something that no hurricane– however powerful– can stop.  Ask LSU if it stopped for either Camille or Katrina.  Ask Hofstra if it stopped for Sandy, Baylor if it stopped for either Rita or Harvey, or Nova Southeastern if it stopped for either Andrew or Irma.  Like those other disasters, Hurricane Maria is part of history now. And just like those other schools went on after their respective storms, we’ll keep going too, training the next generation of physicians, semester after semester.  As we do, I’ll be right there doing my part for my students, my school, and the greater medical education community.  Because in the end, that’s not only what I was trained to do, it’s still my passion today.

Bruce E. Wright graduated with a PhD in Physiology from LSU Health Sciences Center in 1993.  He had postdoctoral fellowships/research faculty positions at the University of Florida and East Carolina University.  He served several years as faculty at a liberal arts college in Georgia.  He worked at three Caribbean medical schools from 2005-2008 before joining the faculty at Ross University School of Medicine in 2008.  He worked for two years at a US-based osteopathic medical school in 2013 and 2014 before returning to Ross University in late 2014.  Dr. Wright is currently Treasurer/Award & Event Coordinator for the American Physiological Society’s Teaching Section.  He has served as a reviewer for Advances in Physiology Education.  He is National Faculty for the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Educators (NBOME), for whom he has written and reviewed items for different exams.  He regularly attends Experimental Biology and was an attendee and presenter for the first Institute for Teaching and Learning meeting in Bar Harbor, Maine in 2014.  He is currently interested in educational research involving teaching methodologies.

Photograph: The author with three RUSM students (from left to right, Armin Hojjat, Harenda Ipalawatte, Bruce Wright, and Eddy Mora) just after a double-tank scuba dive, off St. Kitts, November 2017. Used with permission by Harenda Ipalawatte.

References/links/other:

  1. http://www.dominica.gov.dm/about-dominica/country-profile
  2. https://medical.rossu.edu/about.html
  3. http://www.dominica.gov.dm/tropical-storm-erika
  4. https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/tropical-storm-harvey-forecast-texas-louisiana-arkansas
  5. https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/hurricane-tropical-storm-irma-recap-2017
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Maria
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-5fHwER-Zc
  8. https://www.caricom.org/media-center/communications/press-releases/dominica-prime-minister-roosevelt-skerrit-addresses-the-un-general-assembly
  9. https://www.wunderground.com/cat6/category-5-hurricane-maria-hits-dominica
  10. https://veterinary.rossu.edu/about.html

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