For 70 years, Keen Street Clinic has served the community of Lismore in the face of illness and trauma. Despite having “lost everything,” the team is determined to rebuild.
The east coast is currently experiencing a record La Niña weather event.
Rain continues to batter large parts of northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland, with reports of ‘biblical’ flooding in some areas.
GP Michele Blandford knows firsthand what it is like to deal with the devastating aftermath of these deadly floods.
His practice in Lismore was completely submerged last week after being caught in the middle of the region’s worst flooding following the unprecedented fall.
Lives and livelihoods lost
Talk to newsGP About the traumatic ordeal, Dr Blandford said his team initially hoped the clinic would pull through.
“Our practice has been around for 70 years and we’ve been through a number of floods during that time,” she said.
“We knew from the 2017 flood that we might have water under the clinic, so our chief of staff went to move everything upstairs.
“But when the drawdown broke, the water kept coming and going and eventually peaked at 14.5 meters [more than two metres above the previous record] and at this point we knew everything would be under.
Speaking of the immediate aftermath, Dr Blandford said his team was initially unable to get to the clinic because all available boats and emergency personnel were busy rescuing people.
“It was really traumatic to see friends, family and patients calling for help on Facebook, saying they were trapped in confined spaces where the water was rising and they couldn’t get out. “, she said.
“There were not enough SES and police volunteers to reach everyone, and unfortunately lives were lost.”
Once the waters cleared, Dr Blandford says his team encountered “about an inch of thick, slippery mud covering everything”.
“At first we thought some of the equipment could be salvaged, but it soon became clear that nothing would be saved,” she said.
“We also had our server and backup server underwater.
“So we are making urgent contact with IT to see if there is a way to find our records.” But it is unlikely that even if it can be recovered, it will be accessible within a reasonable time.
The Keen Street Clinic in Lismore was heavily damaged by the flood waters. (Images: provided)
The team is now focused on ensuring the structural integrity of the building.
“Most of our family and friends worked there for hours moving vaccine refrigerators, desks, chairs and computers, getting everything out so we could pull the rug up,” he said. she declared.
“If we can’t dry the floorboards, everything will start to rot. And then we’ll also have structural damage, so that’s become a priority.
Continuity of care
Despite the extensive damage, the practice team and other local health care providers have banded together to ensure the community’s ongoing health needs are met.
“Dr. Nina Robertson and one of our nurses helped set up an emergency clinic with the other local medical volunteers around one of the evacuation centers,” she said.
“We had patients without Medicare cards who didn’t know what medications they were taking, but needed access to them.
“Dr Robertson had to send a number of people to the hospital, some with chest pains, withdrawals and seizures, while our nurse tried to clean and dress the wounds, and just provide a kind of emotional support to those waiting.
“Luckily this was picked up by one of the other clinics in town so we could focus our attention on cleaning up.”
Dr. Blandford and his team now face a difficult road, even more so without flood insurance coverage.
“The cost of flood insurance is just astronomical,” she said.
“I’m just trying to see what options are available to us financially so that we can rebuild.”
But she is confident that her practice will be able to pick up the pieces.
“We’ve been part of the community for 70 years and the idea of not being there just isn’t something we can relate to.
“We really see each other as family, we’ve been together for so long and we’ll work together to rebuild.”
Dr Brandford says she was inundated with messages of support from colleagues and friends after sharing her story on social media.
“The number of engagements, reactions, comments and messages has just been overwhelming,” she said.
“I’m just struggling to respond to all the offers of help, it’s absolutely exceptional.”
One such supporter is RACGP rural president Dr. Michael Clements, who faced similar hardship in 2019 when his Townsville office was flooded.
Talk to newsGPhe said he faced a 12-month legal battle because he simply forgot to tick a box when filling out his insurance form, which meant he didn’t have either flood cover.
“It took about a year for construction and rebuilding, and for things to get back to normal,” he said.
“It also took me about three months [after the flood event] seeing patients again because I was so stressed.
Dr Clements says his most important advice is to learn “how to say yes to help”.
“I definitely suffered from decision-making fatigue,” he said.
“Every day I probably had 100 to 200 decisions to make – what to do with damaged medical records, can I still use an otoscope that was above the flood line? And I just got to a point where I couldn’t do any more.
“That’s why it’s important to have the ‘intellectual trust’ of people and supporters around you, to help lighten that load.”
Dr Clements says he plans to “use all college resources and availabilities to support where we can”.
The Rural Doctors Foundation (RDF) has also contacted Dr Brandford to offer support.
Foundation President Dr. Dan Halliday said newsGP the organization was created in 2014 [as Rural Doctors Association Queensland (RDAQ) at the time] following the 2011 Queensland floods.
“The idea for RDF was conceived during the 2011 floods due to the profession’s limited ability to respond to at-risk colleagues who had been significantly affected by natural disasters,” he said.
“Currently, the RDF is conducting a scoping review and gathering feedback from those directly affected to see where we can directly and indirectly address the needs of these physicians.”
Dr. Brandford says she is incredibly grateful for all the practical advice and donation offers her clinic has received.
A GoFundMe campaign has so far raised nearly $8,000.
“It’s just overwhelming, the amount of support that’s been given,” she said.
“And we are absolutely committed to rebuilding and reopening.”
Where to ask for help
Medical Legal Advisor Dr. Sarah Bird of MDA National recommends the following resources for clinics impacted by rain and/or flooding:
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