‘Really traumatic’: One clinic’s story of survival following devastating floods

Anna Samecki

8/03/2022 4:21:44 PM

For 70 years, the Keen Street Clinic has served the Lismore community during sickness and trauma. Despite having lost ‘everything’, the team is determined to rebuild.

Keen Street Clinic team in Lismore.
The Keen Street Clinic team has spent days trying to clean up the damage. (Image: Supplied)

The east coast is currently experiencing a record-breaking La Niña weather event.
Rain continues to batter large parts of northern NSW and south-eastern Queensland, with reports of ‘biblical’ flooding in some areas.
GP Dr Michele Blandford knows first-hand what it is like to face the devastating consequences of these life-threatening floods.
Her practice in Lismore became completely submerged last week after being caught in the middle of the region’s worst ever floods following the unprecedented downfall.
Lives and livelihoods lost
Speaking to newsGP about the traumatic ordeal, Dr Blandford said her team was initially hopeful the clinic would pull through.
‘Our practice has been around for 70 years, and we’ve been through a number of floods over that time,’ she said.
‘We knew from the 2017 flood that we might get some water underneath the clinic, so our practice manager went over to move everything upstairs.
‘But when the levy broke, the water just kept coming and coming and eventually it peaked at 14.5 metres [more than two metres above the previous record] and by that stage we knew it would all be under.’
Speaking about the immediate aftermath, Dr Blandford says her team was initially unable to get to the clinic as all the available boats and emergency personnel were busy rescuing people.
‘It was really traumatic seeing friends and family and patients putting out calls for help on Facebook, saying that they were trapped in confined spaces where water was rising and they couldn’t get out,’ she said.
‘There weren’t enough SES and police volunteers to get to everyone, and unfortunately there have been lives lost.’
The damage
Once the waters receded, Dr Blandford says her team encountered ‘about an inch of thick, slippery mud coating everything’.
‘Initially we thought that some of the equipment might be salvageable, but it very quickly became apparent that nothing was going to be saved,’ she said.
‘We have had our server and our backup server go underwater as well.
‘So we’re currently making urgent contact with IT to see if there’s any way of finding our records. But it’s unlikely that even if it can be salvaged, it will be accessible in any reasonable sort of timeframe.’

Lismore-GP-Article.jpgThe Keen Street Clinic in Lismore has been heavily damaged by the floodwaters. (Images: Supplied)
The team’s focus is now on ensuring the structural integrity of the building.
‘Most of our family and friends have been down there working for hours just shifting the vaccine fridges, desks, chairs and computers, in order to get everything out so we can pull up the carpet,’ she said.
‘If we can’t get the floorboards dry then everything will begin to rot. And then we’ll have structural damage as well, so that’s become a priority.’
Continuity of care
Despite the widespread damage, the practice team and other local healthcare providers have banded together to ensure the ongoing healthcare needs of the community 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 centres,’ she said.
‘We had patients without Medicare cards who didn’t know what medications they were on, but who were needing access to them.
‘Dr Robertson had to send quite a few people off to the hospital, some with chest pains, withdrawals and epileptic seizures, while our nurse was trying to clean and dress wounds, and just provide some sort of emotional support to those who were waiting.
‘Fortunately, that’s been taken over by one of the other clinics in town so we can focus our attention on trying to get the clean-up done.’
Dr Blandford and her team now face a difficult road ahead, even more so without flood insurance cover.
‘The cost of flood insurance is just astronomical,’ she said.
‘I’m just trying to see what options are open to us financially to be able to rebuild.’
But she is confident 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 is just not something we can comprehend.
‘We really see ourselves as a family, we've been together for so long, and we will work together to rebuild.’
Outpouring of support
Dr Brandford says she has been inundated with messages of support from colleagues and friends after sharing her story on social media.
‘The number of engagements and reactions and comments and messages has just been overwhelming,’ she said.
‘I’ve been just struggling to reply to all the offers of help, it’s absolutely outstanding.’
One of those supporters is RACGP Rural Chair Dr Michael Clements, who experienced similar hardship in 2019 when his Townsville practice flooded.
Speaking to newsGP, he said he faced a 12-month legal battle due to a simple ‘tick-box’ oversight in filling out his insurance form, which meant he also had no flood cover.
‘It took about a year for the construction and rebuild, and for things to go back to normal,’ he said.
‘It also took me about three months [after the flood event] to see patients again because I was so stressed.’
Dr Clements says his single most important piece of advice is to learn ‘how to say yes to help’.
‘I certainly suffered decision making fatigue,’ he said.
‘Every day I probably had about 100–200 decisions to make – everything from what do about damaged medical records, to can I still use an otoscope that was above the flood line? And I just got to a point where I couldn’t make any more.
‘That’s why getting a “brains-trust” of people and supports together around you is important, to help ease that load.’
Dr Clements says he plans on ‘using all of the resources and availabilities of the college to support where we can’.
The Rural Doctors Foundation (RDF) also reached out to Dr Brandford to offer their support.
Foundation Chair, Dr Dan Halliday, told newsGP the organisation was established in 2014 [as Rural Doctors Association Queensland (RDAQ) at the time] following the Queensland floods of 2011.
‘The idea for RDF was conceived in the 2011 floods due to the limited ability of the profession to respond to colleagues at risk who had been significantly affected by natural disasters,’ he said.
‘Currently, the RDF is doing a scoping review and getting feedback from those directly affected to see where we can support directly and indirectly the needs of those doctors.’
Dr Brandford says she is incredibly grateful for all the practical advice and offers of donation her clinic has received.
A GoFundMe campaign has so far raised almost $8000.
‘It’s just been overwhelming, the amount of support that’s come through,’ she said.
‘And we’re absolutely determined to rebuild and to reopen.’
Where to seek assistance
Medicolegal Advisor Dr Sara Bird from MDA National recommends the following resources for clinics affected by rain and/or flood damage: 

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A.Prof John William Kramer, OAM   9/03/2022 10:08:30 AM

I visited Lismore last Sunday and met with Drs Nina Robertson and Ken Whyte at the Keen St Clinic. The damage is unbelievable. I have never seen anything like this in my life. We must do all we can to help these colleagues and the many others on the North Coast of NSW and up into Queensland.
Some novel solutions will be required.