BY BILL WOLCOTT
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Michelle Secrist, who hurriedly became part of a Community Emergency Response Team in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, asked a Long Island couple where they were from.
“Nowhere,” they responded. “It’s gone.”
What the couple once had was spread by wind and rain over a lawn, somewhere in Yaphank, a hamlet towards the eastern end of Long Island. Their home was destroyed.
Secrist, a 2008 graduate of Lockport High School, earned a bachelor’s degree in Health and Human Services from the University at Buffalo this year. She is now in an accelerated nursing program at UB.
On Halloween night, Joann M. Sands, a clinical instructor at UB, was activated by New York’s Emergency Response Team to assist with health care relief for New York City area residents. Sands put out a call for volunteers from UB’s senior resident students.
Secrist did not read Sands’ email until 1 p.m. and had one hour to prepare and catch a ride with six other students. The eight women took two cars to Albany, where the team met up with other volunteers. Three of the UB students were from Long Island, the Suffolk County area, and the other four were from Western New York.
“Everybody was upbeat and exicted and happy to help,” said Sands, who is from Orchard Park.
The UB team arrived on Long Island at 12:30 a.m. and debriefed as what to expect. Then they went to work.
They were put up in heated military tents and took 12-hour shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. They set up a hospital unit in the dining room of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank. There were 20 temporary cots on the first floor and 20 on the second floor.
The first night, a few people showed up for shelter. Before long, the beds filled up.
Secrist and Sands worked the night shift. “It was so sad to see people in that situation,” the young Lockport woman said. “It was very eye-opening. You don’t appreciate the small things until they’re taken away ... They have such a long way to go. They’ll have to be sheltered for months.”
The UB nursing students were kept busy, taking in people from surrounding areas. They managed medication for many. Some needed full assistance.
”She was wonderful, an asset to have on the trip,” Sands said of Secrist. “She was proactive and I didn’t have to ask her. She was on top of everything.”
Not everyone who sought shelter was injured. Many were older people who couldn’t stay in their homes and needed medication. Some needed minor medical attention.
”We were very busy,” Sands said. “We heard a lot of stories. Several lost their homes, cars and personal belongings.”
The team came back on Monday. “It was heartbreaking to leave.”
It might have been a career-changing experience for Secrist, a former volleyball and basketball player for Lockport High School. She is considering going into the Medical Reserve Corps.
The MRC is a network in the U.S. of community-based units established by local organizations to meet the public health needs in communities.
”I’m definitely interested in that,” she said.
Secrist would also like to pursue a career in oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.