- May 2, 2013
- 11:00 am
- Tanner Walters
When disaster strikes, he’s on call
Dr. Robert Fuller, MD ’92, will practice medicine wherever and however it needs to be practiced. That might mean performing surgery on the hood of a car after an earthquake or treating broken bones in a mud-soaked third-world hospital that has been hit by a tsunami. But he’s okay with that. In fact, he kind of prefers it that way.
“I like the chaos, disorder, lack of rules, and pitfalls that surround you in disaster medicine,” says Fuller, an International Medical Corps volunteer who has worked in Haiti, Indonesia, and the West Indies, as well as at Ground Zero in New York just after the 9/11 attacks. “I find those environments to be stimulating, challenging, and rewarding.”
Making sense out of the chaos that ensues after a disaster is “a bit of an art form,” Fuller says. “Medicine is not about having a patient sit on a clean white towel while you perfectly place a suture. It’s about preventing death.” So his goal is “to make medicine happen,” even if everything around him is falling apart.
In many ways, Fuller leads two lives. He is head of emergency medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center and an associate professor of traumatology and emergency medicine. But he’s also a volunteer with International Medical Corps, a humanitarian organization that deploys doctors to disaster-ravaged areas to provide health care relief.
He’s on call to assist with the next major disaster —no matter what part of the world it might hit. He has a “go bag” packed, with high-calorie bars, a water filter, a mosquito net, and other necessities to help him get by for a handful of days.
When Fuller set out to become a doctor, he didn’t know which path he would follow. But while in his fourth year at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine, he took advantage of an opportunity to do a rotation at St. Jude Hospital in St. Lucia, a Caribbean island. That gave him a taste of the hard work and unpredictability of emergency medicine. He realized it was the direction he wanted to take his career.
Fuller recalls that the hours were long at St. Jude, but he was energized by the work. When it came time to leave, he promised the staff he’d return. They told him, “Everyone says that, and no one ever does.”
But true to his word, Fuller went back to St. Lucia at the end of his residency training, along with his wife and 15-month-old daughter. He spent nearly a year working on a volunteer basis as director of the emergency department.
Some people thought he was crazy to take an unpaid position for his first real job as a doctor. But he says the needs were great, and he really got into the work. He helped improve services and expanded emergency care to 24 hours.
When Fuller left St. Lucia and joined the University of Connecticut, he continued to bring his students to St. Jude to learn about tropical medicine. Today he is director of the hospital’s Tropical/Third-World Emergency Medicine elective.
Fuller says his work in St. Lucia taught him important skills, such as how to be flexible and do the best job possible without all the necessary supplies. These skills would aid him in the disaster situations he would encounter years later, starting with the 9/11 attacks on New York City.
Fuller, a former paramedic, was directing his hospital’s paramedics at the time and had been stepping up their emergency-response training. When 9/11 happened, the New York Fire Department requested assistance, so Fuller asked hospital administrators to send his team. They told him to take anything he needed—medications, equipment, even a fire truck.
“The roads were vacant. A sign said New York City was closed. We drove right up to the rubble pile and started helping with search and rescue,” Fuller recalls.
The team participated in one of the last live rescues, then started digging in the rubble. “After 24 hours, we were dirty and tired, and we drove back home. It was a very moving experience for all of us,” Fuller says, adding that he “learned a lot, like how to work in an unstable environment and keep yourself and your team safe and healthy.”
This knowledge came in handy a few years later, after the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which killed more than 200,000 people. Fuller called the International Medical Corps to see if help was needed. He was sent to Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
“I happened to be at the front edge of arriving volunteers. I went to the hospital and found out that all of the emergency staff had been killed.”
So he was asked to run emergency operations. He quickly cleaned the emergency room and started taking care of patients. He stayed for a month.
When a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Fuller was one of the first volunteers to arrive. It was taking a long time for people to get checked in at the airport. So he snuck through a fence and made his way to the hospital, where he performed one of the first surgeries. He lead the Corps team for two weeks.
The next disaster hit nine months later, when Hurricane Tomas battered St. Lucia. Fuller headed to the familiar region to help care for refugees and set up a clinic.
It can be difficult, Fuller says, to leave everyday life on a moment’s notice and head to a strange country for an unknown amount of time. But he says it helps that his family and colleagues are supportive. The doctors he works with help cover his shifts and teaching. “It’s a testament to them that I am able to do these things. They all pitch in behind me, and I try to make it up when I get back.”
And he doesn’t mind leaving the disaster zone once his work is done. “I make the biggest impact on the front end,” he says. “Once rules of operation and strategy for care are established, I’m ready to go. By then I’ve lost 10 or 15 pounds, I haven’t had a lot of sleep, and I’m ready to get back to hot water.”
But Fuller says he’s always aware that his short-term inconveniences don’t compare to
the suffering of the local people. “It doesn’t take much to put things in perspective,” he says.
In addition to his trips to disaster zones, Fuller took a sabbatical in Ecuador from 2008 to 2009, working at an inner-city hospital. He also has worked in Nicaragua and is hoping to return there soon with his disaster medicine students.
Fuller, a Stritch School of Medicine Alumnus of the Year in 2012, says his Loyola experience helped guide him toward his true calling of emergency medicine, thanks to the opportunity in St. Lucia. He says Loyola also gave him a solid grounding in ethics and taught him the real meaning of patient-centered care. “Loyola was delivering that message before it was the catchphrase it has become today.”
Fuller says he’s prepared to head out if and when the next disaster hits—as long as he’s the right guy for the job and his wife gives her okay. His bag is packed and ready to go.