Kim Godfrey and Kathy Bradley recently got back from a disaster zone, and a handful of people were stuck on their minds.
They thought about the couple who had been married for 72 years. Where would they end up? At their age, it was unlikely they would rebuild the Long Beach home they lost to Hurricane Sandy. And what about the legions of other elderly people that lost their homes? Where would they end up?
“I think a lot of people were very nervous that they would end up in a nursing home,” said Godfrey, 49, of Niskayuna. “Because there’s no way they were going to be rebuilding.”
After Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, the people at the Visiting Nurse Services of Schenectady and Saratoga counties wondered how they could help. After about a dozen phone calls to various state and county agencies, VNS President and CEO Joe Twardy heard from the state Office of Health Emergency Preparedness. They were in desperate need of help at special needs shelters set up around Long Island.
“The first time I talked to them they said ‘Can you come tonight?’ and I said, ‘Well, no, we’re up in Schenectady,’ ” said Twardy.
Godfrey and Bradley immediately volunteered to lend a hand downstate. A state Department of Health bus drove them and another group of volunteers from Erie and Otsego counties down to the affected areas. It was four days after the so-called superstorm hit.
They worked four consecutive 12-hour overnight shifts at a Nassau Community College shelter designated for special needs victims: the elderly, the disabled and the ill. At their shelter, 107 people crammed onto 107 cots and needed food, water, clean sheets, blankets, clothes and — as the nurses soon found out — much, much more.
“One of the things we had to watch out for was dehydration,” said Bradley, 50, of Burnt Hills. “We had to check skin integrity, things like open areas or pressure sores.”
The elderly occupied most of the shelter, so incontinence supplies were a necessity. Many had lost their homes, but some just needed electricity to power their oxygen machines. And then there were those who had left their medications back home.
One morning, Godfrey noticed a man with a wound dressing on his leg.
“The dressing looked horrible,” she recalled. He had a diabetic ulcer and had forgotten about the wound for nearly four days.
“That’s a long time,” she said.
For a nurse, a caregiver and a volunteer, shelter work requires more than just meeting physical and medical needs. The elderly storm victims were prepared to live only a few more years or a decade or so surrounded by the familiarity of their home and their belongings. They were not expecting these things to wash away or get damaged. Godfrey and Bradley were also lending emotional support to the victims, who ranged from being in tears to being in a state of shock or disbelief.
“They just weren’t sure what was going to happen to them, you know, where they would end up,” said Godfrey, recalling the couple of 72 years who lost their home.
Their names were Jean and Harold. They were both in their 90s, white-haired and bespectacled. When night fell at the shelter, Jean and Harold would push their cots together. Jean would go over to Harold and give him a peck on the mouth, and he would reach for her hand as they drifted off to sleep.
The volunteer experience made the VNS nurses more appreciative of the little things we all take for granted — being able to flick on a light when we walk in the house or feeding the cat before curling up in our own beds.
Although it was a dire atmosphere at the shelter, there was plenty of gratitude to go around.
“This one guy in the corner, every time we walked by his cot he would say, ‘You guys are angels, thank you so much for coming all this way and helping us,’ ” Godfrey recalled. “One hundred times a night he would tell us that. They were very grateful. He never complained once. Really, never.”
Godfrey and Bradley made a mental note of the supplies the Nassau County shelter still needed once they got back to Schenectady. They’re collecting drawstring pants, underwear and non-skid socks to drop off directly to the shelter Tuesday. If anyone is interested in donating these supplies, they can drop them off at the VNS building at 108 Erie Blvd.