Jennifer McQuade sat in her Houston home on Sunday, Aug. 27, watching Hurricane Harvey dumping record amounts of rain onto her city. The doctor wasn’t on call but got a message from work: The city was using the George R. Brown Convention Center as an emergency shelter. It needed whatever people could spare.

Jennifer McQuade (Col ’98) Craig Washburn

McQuade (Col ’98) lived within walking distance, and her neighborhood was an island in the massive flooding. So she gathered blankets, socks and hygiene products and went to the center. People were streaming in from helicopters and flatbed trucks.

She dropped off her donations and asked one of the volunteers the question that would change her life: Do you need medical help?

The answer was a resounding “Yes.” In the weeks that followed, McQuade, a melanoma oncologist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, created a stopgap medical center at the shelter, recruited other physicians and nurses to help treat patients and rounded up volunteers to donate medical supplies and equipment. The work she began that week has branched into other efforts that continue to help areas devastated by natural disasters, including Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

McQuade said she felt she had to help; it’s in her nature. But she did ask herself during the first 24 hours: “What have I gotten myself into?”

Dr. Jennifer McQuade (Col ’98), worked with Dr. Regina Troxell, center, and Dr. Christina Propst, left, in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Courtesy Jennifer McQuade

McQuade’s ingenuity and curiosity developed early. She was 6 when she grabbed knives out of the kitchen to dissect a dead possum she’d found in the back yard.

“I just wanted to know what was inside,” she said.

By the time she graduated from Midlothian High School in Chesterfield County, Virginia, she was a star student and had a year’s worth of college credits. She wanted to be a doctor and had a range of colleges to choose from—Harvard, Princeton and Duke had accepted her, she said.

She picked UVA. As an Echols Scholar, she studied biology and international studies from 1995 to 1998 but then put thoughts of medicine to the side. She wanted to roam and learn, and she moved to Taiwan to teach English and study Chinese culture.

While she was in Taiwan, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. McQuade returned to the States, joining her parents, who had moved to Texas. She had studied Chinese medical practices like acupuncture and thought they could help her mother. Doctors wanted a more traditional treatment plan, however. The experience reignited her interest in medicine, and she decided to do research in acupuncture.

During the next few years, she got her master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine, became a Fulbright Fellow, and got a license to practice acupuncture. She graduated from the Baylor College of Medicine in 2009 and did an oncology fellowship at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2015—where she stayed. She’s now an instructor in melanoma medical oncology.

Residents take shelter from Hurricane Harvey in the George R. Brown Convention Center. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When she arrived at the shelter that late-August day, she noticed a table scattered with Band-Aids and bottles of pain reliever. But people were coming in with more urgent problems.

“You had diabetics needing insulin,” McQuade said, “patients coming in with serious wounds who would need IV antibiotics, people on dialysis, heart patients with stents.”

The city had deployed a small group of doctors, but they were busy checking to see which people needed to be taken to a hospital, she said. And more people were coming in by the dozens.

McQuade jumped on Facebook and made an appeal for workers and supplies in the Physician Moms Group, which has nearly 70,000 members around the globe.

She came home late that night to a message from a doctor in Louisiana. Ashley Saucier had a good idea what McQuade was embarking on; she had set up an emergency aid coalition in Baton Rouge after severe flooding in Louisiana last year.

Saucier asked if McQuade was running the medical center and the shelter. McQuade answered no; she was just an oncologist helping out.

Saucier told McQuade it wasn’t going to play out that way: McQuade would end up running it. Even though FEMA and other agencies were on the way, patients couldn’t wait.

When McQuade returned the next morning, more people were rushing in. By Tuesday, there were as many as 10,000.

But more help had also arrived. Physicians had emptied their supply closets and brought in medicines. Pharmacies were donating crutches, blood-pressure cuffs, glucometers and test strips, patient gowns and IV poles. Pharmacists set up an area to distribute medicine. Playpens were dropped off to corral infants and keep them safe. Restaurants delivered meals to the growing number of workers.

Volunteers used tables to set up triage and examination areas. Someone discovered an elderly man who had been lying on a cot for 18 hours in his own urine. Quickly, an area for elderly residents who needed assistance with daily activities, like toileting, was set up. That area soon had 80 people being cared for.

Left: A volunteer pharmacist drew up this list of the medicines that were needed in the shelter.
Right: McQuade with Dr. Ashley Saucier, who initially told McQuade to step up and run the medical center. Courtesy Jennifer McQuade

An informational technology company came by and tapped into patient records, one of the most important pieces of the shelter. “When people evacuate, they don’t have their medicines,” McQuade said. “Half the time they don’t know what they take.”

Dr. Regina Troxell had stopped by the shelter that Sunday to drop off donations and joined McQuade. She helped recruit doctors and nurses and created a Google Doc to manage their shifts and duties.

By that Tuesday, the medical area was so well organized that it had to turn 40 to 50 volunteer medical personnel away. By Wednesday, McQuade said, a federal medical deployment team arrived to set up a mobile hospital. The crew said it was astonished by what it found.

“They said it was the most comprehensive system they had ever seen,” McQuade said.

That wasn’t the only praise McQuade and others received for their work.

In between her continued appeals and Facebook updates, people were responding with donations and gratitude: “Jennifer—you are amazing,” someone commented on her Facebook page. “We are so lucky to have you in Houston. You are an amazing doctor and person.”

Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, wrote in late October: “We very much appreciate the efforts of Dr. McQuade and all the other doctor and nurse volunteers who helped out. In the period between when the disaster strikes and when FEMA and the American Red Cross can get set up, there’s always a gap. The city has personnel and plans to fill that gap, but it’s always helpful when people like Dr. McQuade are able [to] step up when needed.”

The work McQuade and others did was featured in an NPR program.

“This really just spiraled and turned into an amazing thing,” Troxell said.

McQuade returned to her full-time job the following week but was still dispatching some of the excess supplies they had received to Louisiana, which was reeling from the hurricane, too.

As the flood waters were receding, and displaced people were returning to their homes, McQuade said she found herself having a difficult time. She’d worked 16-hour days at the shelter and was conducting work through social media and phone calls when she was at home. And now she would go into her office and cry and not know why. Then she’d cry more for not knowing. She sought professional help and learned she was dealing with “savior syndrome,” the need to save other people.

The counselor told her she was deriving a sense of purpose from the volunteer work and that she had to make it a part of her life, she said.

“First I felt guilty about that. It was almost like, literally, my heart rate was up, I had adrenaline, my dopamine going, being able to help so many people—that’s how we’re biologically wired,” she said. “I felt guilty that I was deriving pleasure from doing this somehow.”

But McQuade took her counselor’s advice. She created the Medical Disaster Response Network, a group of medical professionals that, along with other organizations McQuade networked with, has been rounding up donations and putting them on flights to Puerto Rico. The group also flies people to the U.S. mainland for more serious care, like chemotherapy treatments, that they can’t get on the devastated island.

McQuade said her guilt has been replaced with gratitude.

“I’ve met this amazing group of people, some in person, this whole network, from other physicians to volunteer pilots. This is my story, but there are so many others,” she said. “I’m just so grateful to be connected to so many people.”

Denise Watson is a features writer based in Norfolk, Virginia.