Ronald Burns, DO, and his wife Janet, like their fellow Orlando, Florida, citizens, were prepared for the worst. The devastation in Texas was yet unfolding. News reports indicated Hurricane Irma would be far worse.
The shelves at the stores were already empty. Mrs. Burns stored plenty of water, cooked all their food and froze it for their reserves. At his family medicine office, Dr. Burns saved the supply of flu shots and other vaccines in a portable fridge. They bunkered down at home and waited. Little did they know that long before Irma hit, their house would not be full of water, but students, including those training to be DOs.
On Sept. 6, three first-year osteopathic medical students, including their oldest son, would make the trip north to Orlando from Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Burns’ youngest son, along with five of his undergrad friends from Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, arrived shortly after. Their two daughters and other family members also sought refuge in the Burns shelter.
The calm before the storm
Inside, life continued as near to normal as possible. There was an ample supply of food and space. For the medical students, Mrs. Burns borrowed mattresses from nearby friends. Dr. Burns, an AOA board-certified family medicine physician, offered his in-home doctor’s office as a safe space and quiet place for the medical students to study.
“Re-establishing routines is healing for disrupted lives,” Dr. Burns says. To the students in his care, he said, “This is a challenging time, but one that you can work to manage.”
The eye of the storm
On Sunday morning, Irma attacked the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane with 400-mile winds from the center, leaving a trail of debris behind as it raged north. Rain and winds pelted the shores, tearing down trees, destroying homes and businesses, and leaving 6 million Florida residents without power.
Then, quite unexpectedly, as Irma moved north toward the Burns’ makeshift bunker, she began to decrease in size and velocity. The winds continued, but they were lighter by Monday morning, when Irma reached Orlando.
The rains slowed. The winds decreased. Irma weakened. While not exempt, Orlando would not be the hardest hit. Hurricane Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm. Those sheltered inside the Burns home would stay safe and dry, albeit without power.
As the storm passed through Orlando in a much milder strength than initially expected, Mrs. Burns instructed the students to put on their ponchos and come outside. “Once you’re out in the storm, it doesn’t scare you as much,” she says. “It is the fear that can be overwhelming. But you have to keep things as normal as possible and remain calm.”
On Tuesday, Disney World and several airports reopened, helping return to the Orlando area some measure of normalcy. Dr. Burns’ family medicine clinic has power and they’re busier than ever. Most patients are in for acute care, injuries and colds. But before they see the doctor, they’re offered power outlets so they can charge their phones in Dr. Burns’ office, a luxury in the midst of the loss left behind by Irma. “We have to share the power,” he says.
There is a clear correlation, Dr. Burns reveals, between his osteopathic background and his desire to serve. “Osteopathic physicians are distinctive because we engage our communities with an approach to modern medicine with a personal touch. Modern in the sense of taking advantage of the latest innovation and technology, and personal because of the focus on the mind, body and spirit of the individual.”
Managing expectations and emotions, Dr. Burns shares, is a reflection of his training. “People experience comfort knowing they have a physician who is available to quarterback their needs. I remind them that for me, PCP means patient-centered physician.
“I learned long ago that you cannot control the path of a storm. So much of my time before and after Irma was focused on helping patients restore emotional well-being and a sense of control.”