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An ER Doctor Braves the Eye of the Storm

As Hurricane Matthew thrashed the South Carolina Lowcountry with punishing rainfall and 120 mph winds, emergency medicine physician Dr. M. Craig Ward held down the fort as the lone overnight doctor at Walterboro’s Colleton Medical Center (CMC).

From 7 p.m. Saturday night to 7 a.m. Sunday morning, 31 ambulances pulled up to the ER doors one by one. Ward, slightly bedraggled but thankful for the help of his “superstar” physician assistant, Nyala Edwards, worked some of the busiest nights he had ever seen in his 30-year medical career.

A Class of ‘85 School of Medicine graduate who completed his residency in family medicine at Richland Memorial Hospital (now Palmetto Health), Ward had picked up several of his out-of-town colleagues’ shifts so they wouldn’t have to leave their families or travel in risky conditions.

He says that while Beaufort Memorial, Hilton Head Hospital and Coastal Carolina Hospital were all forced to evacuate before the hurricane struck, CMC leadership never really considered closing. They hoped their hospital, located “about 50 miles from anything” would be just out of Matthew’s reach. “We felt that we were going to be the front line, and that was that.”

But because the rural, single doctor emergency room was now admitting patients from the coastal areas along with the hospital’s usual 100 mile section of the state, the situation was fairly frantic. Though the most dangerous potential scenario was a mass casualty situation – like a bus turning over on the interstate – most of the people who needed help were chronically ill, including a number of distressed kidney failure patients who would die without quick dialysis treatment.

Ward says he is proud the medical center was able to prevent a “life-altering nightmare” for those patients.

He was also impressed with the dedication his co-workers demonstrated; every member of the Colleton team who was scheduled to work showed up, even if it meant sleeping on a cot at the hospital for a few nights. Ambulances are grounded by law once wind speeds reach 50 miles per hour, but paramedics were suited up and ready to go as soon as they could get back on the roads.

The trauma injuries started coming in during the aftermath – people who had cut themselves with power tools, fallen or were hurt while maneuvering around debris.

When asked if he was anxious about his own house during the storm’s peak hours – Ward owns a historic, storied home built by the town’s founder – he says that keeping his wife Melissa and their children out of harm’s way was his only real concern. But he adds with a chuckle that, during a hurricane, “living in a 250 year-old house surrounded by 350 year-old giant trees suddenly didn’t seem so great.”

A porch was destroyed and a few of the estate’s spectacular oaks were damaged or downed. Storm winds also knocked out power lines, swathing the house in darkness for four days. Still, Ward feels lucky. “The property is just stuff,” he says. “What’s irreplaceable is the people.”

Later he posted a Facebook status expressing gratitude for his family’s safety, along with “great people, chainsaws, gas water heaters, battery-operated smart phones and homeowners insurance.”

Ward notes that one of the joys of living in a small, close-knit town like Walterboro, which he dubs “the front porch of the Lowcountry” is watching how neighbors band together during challenging times. “When we have a disaster everybody comes,” he says. “The hospital CEO will be there, the plumber will be there – he’ll bring his wife, and she’ll make sure everyone has blankets…the community embraces the need.”

“It’s pretty cool. It gives you a warm spot in your heart.”


October 31, 2016