Dr. Christopher Stephens, associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and flight surgeon in the National Guard, called it a surreal experience as he and other members of the Utah National Guard lifted up victims of Hurricane Harvey onto rescue helicopters a couple of weeks ago.
Stephens has been a member of the National Guard for the last six years or so and he said it was the first time he had participated in something on this scale. He grew up here in Houston, and has worked at the school for the past few years.
“It’s hard to describe what I saw from the air,” Stephens said. “It was pretty emotional seeing people waving T-shirts at us from porches and rooftops, waiting to be rescued. It reminded me of seeing footage of what happened during Hurricane Katrina.”
Stephens and other members of the National Guard pulled out over three dozen people in the Beaumont and Port Arthur areas, where many had been stranded by the rising waters left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Dozens of other helicopters took part in rescue operations and Stephens worked for three days beginning Aug. 30 alongside other National Guard members as they hoisted people young and old from the waters.
“It was amazing to look out and see choppers flying in every single direction.” Stephens said. “It was a great feeling to be able to help these people and get them out of harm’s way.”
Stephens spent three days working search and rescue operations with others, flying back and forth from the Jack Brooks Regional Airport in Beaumont and, despite some concern over fuel supplies on the first day, the National Guard worked tirelessly to rescue hurricane victims. There were other unique challenges for the aircraft beyond the wind gusts and rain – with no air traffic controller near Port Arthur, the airport’s control tower and ground crew would have to signal choppers to land and take off, meaning the skies were far busier than usual.
Still, Stephens and the members of the Utah National Guard he was flying with did their part to help those in need. Between avoiding obstacles like telephone poles, power lines and trees, along with taking care of the injured and ensuring they were safe aboard the helicopter, Stephens said it was a stressful albeit rewarding experience.
“Between the two aircraft we were using, we rescued about 40 people,” Stephens said. “They were cold and wet and trying to bring what they could with them. At any given time, we had almost seven to eight people in the chopper and it was a lot of work, but to see the look of relief on their faces was really exhilarating.”
With a background in aviation and hospital medicine, Stephens says he feels like he found a unique niche for himself in the National Guard. He had always wanted to serve in the military, particularly after hearing of the experiences of his grandfather who was a dentist in the Navy and served aboard a ship near Iwo Jima in World War II.
“I felt that being a trauma physician was the best way to serve,” Stephens said.