For 24 years, G. Patricia Cantwell, M.D., has provided medical support for first responders after hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City. In mid-October, she was deployed to Mexico Beach, Florida, the Panhandle community devastated on October 10 by Hurricane Michael that left 29 dead.
“When the storm surge came, it swept through the beachfront homes built on stilts, leaving piles of rubble behind,” said Dr. Cantwell, who served as medical manager for the South Florida Urban Search & Rescue Task Force 2, a team of about 80 highly trained paramedic firefighters, structural engineers, and support professionals who searched damaged buildings for survivors and assisted victims of the powerful Category 4 storm. “The damage from Michael was far worse than Hurricane Irma’s impact on the Keys last year.”
As co-medical manager with Stuart Morgenstein, D.O., of Fort Myers, Dr. Cantwell’s role was to protect the health and safety of the task force members, including nine K-9s trained to find survivors and victims buried or trapped in collapsed buildings, and assist surviving victims.
“The post-hurricane landscape is very dangerous, with downed electrical wires, unstable structures, shards of wood, exposed nails, broken glass, and sharp metal everywhere,” she said. “Fortunately, there were no injuries among our first responders, and our main focus was keeping team members hydrated in the intense heat.”
After two weeks of assisting in the Panhandle recovery effort, Dr. Cantwell and the US&R TF2 team returned to Miami on October 19, and she resumed her role as chief of the Division of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine and director of pediatric palliative medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“I don’t know of anyone more heroic than Patti Cantwell,” said Judy Schaechter, M.D., MBA, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, the George E. Batchelor Chair in Child Health, chief of service at Holtz Children’s Hospital at UM/Jackson Health System, and associate director of the Mailman Center for Child Development. “When duty calls, she goes, leaving family and with the full support of her division and department.”
Background of Service
A native of Maine, Dr. Cantwell earned her bachelor’s degree at the College of Saint Elizabeth in New Jersey and her medical degree at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina on a health professional scholarship from the U.S. Navy. While in the service, she completed her medical residency at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and her pediatric residency at Naval Hospital Beaufort.
“I have always enjoyed sports, including martial arts and windsurfing,” she said. “After leaving the Navy, I fell in love with Miami and was fortunate to do my pediatric critical care fellowship here at Jackson Memorial Hospital.”
Two years after Hurricane Andrew swept through southern Dade County in 1992, Dr. Cantwell joined the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search & Rescue team spearheaded by City of Miami Fire-Rescue, South Florida Task Force 2, and has served as medical manager since 1994.
“Physicians on these US&R teams represent many different specialties, including trauma surgery, emergency medicine, family medicine, and critical care,” she said. “It’s an honor and privilege for me to serve our country in this way.”
The medical component of the US&R team focuses upon potential injuries stemming from collapsed structures and confined space rescue. Experience has shown that bringing expeditious medical care to patients before complex extrications can promote the best chance of recovery.
Through the years, Dr. Cantwell has deployed with Task Force 2 for more than a dozen post-disaster missions. These have included the response to Rio de Piedras, Puerto Rico, for a building explosion in 1996; the Sept. 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center towers; Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of Gulfport, Mississippi, and New Orleans in 2005; and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The earthquake in Haiti alone killed an estimated 250,000 people, injured another 300,000, and left 5 million residents without homes.
“We have learned a great deal about caring for injured victims over the years,” Dr. Cantwell said. “For instance, it’s important for first responders to assess the health status of children and adults trapped in demolished structures and provide immediate care, if needed, before removing them from the rubble.”
The FEMA and state emergency response teams have also learned from experience and now take a carefully disciplined approach, aided by sophisticated search and GPS technology, drones, and search canines in their search and rescue missions.
“Every mission is coordinated through an emergency operations center, but there are always different challenges,” Dr. Cantwell said. “In Mexico Beach, for instance, all communications services were down, so our team members talked with local fire and police professionals as well as survivors trying to determine if anyone had stayed behind and where those homes had been located.”
Like other members of the South Florida US&R TF2 team, Dr. Cantwell packs a “go bag” so she is ready to leave for a disaster site with six hours’ notice. The alert for Hurricane Michael came on October 8, and the task force — including City of Miami Fire-Rescue personnel, paramedic firefighters from almost 25 other South Florida municipalities, and several civilians — had assembled and was already heading north before the storm struck on the 10th. By daybreak on October 11, the South Florida team had arrived at Mexico Beach as part of a coordinated response by multiple agencies and volunteers.
“Our goal is to work seamlessly with other first responders and assist with whatever is needed,” Dr. Cantwell said. “Our team is self-sufficient for a minimum of three days, so we don’t impose a strain on scarce local resources and can start the search process immediately. As a member of the medical team, I might help build a tent, shuttle rescue tools, or sweep a parking lot because that’s the most pressing task at the time.”
Physicians work side by side with the medical specialists and can easily become embedded with the rescue squads.
Each morning, the task force is given a search mission for a specific area, and they work until after dark, using photos, videos, and GPS coordinates to document their findings and account for any missing persons found in the area.
“We do medical checks on our team members to be sure they are healthy throughout the deployment,” Dr. Cantwell said. “Given the difficult working conditions and close quarters, one case of the flu or a respiratory infection could quickly spread through the team.”
The sense of teamwork and camaraderie of all members of Task Force 2 are exceptional attributes of this team.
Reflecting on Dr. Cantwell’s leadership, Dr. Schaechter said, “Patti Cantwell goes when duty calls, with no fanfare. She ventures into territory few of us ever encounter, in terms of suffering, devastation, and real risk and discomfort for herself. Her sense of service, her fearlessness, and her commitment are inspiring to all of us.”