TMA Exhibit Explores Disasters That Helped Shape Texas Medicine
By Nancy Semin

Harvey TMT photo

Everything is bigger in Texas, and unfortunately, the old saying may well be true when it comes to disasters.

In the past 100 years, Texas has endured a wide range of disasters — both natural and manmade.

The Texas Medical Association is highlighting some of the state’s most notorious disasters, and the medical responses to them, in its newest exhibit, “When Disaster Strikes…Six Catastrophes That Changed Texas Medicine.”

The exhibit is on display in the Robert G. Mickey History of Medicine Gallery at the TMA headquarters in Austin.

“When Disaster Strikes” opens with the deadly Yellow Fever epidemics of the late 19th century. 

Although long-forgotten in the state today, yellow fever struck fear in the hearts of all Texans for many decades, and outbreaks often sparked stampedes of people fleeing towns. Ensuing efforts to combat the virus, which is spread to people bitten by infected mosquitoes, were often ill-guided and ineffective.   

But you don’t have to look too far into the past to find a similar infection scare. The exhibit highlights the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which started in West Africa and spread to the United States. Texas is the only state that experienced a fatality caused by the virus in 2014 when a man infected in Liberia traveled to Dallas. Two nurses who treated him also contracted the disease but were eventually declared disease-free.

The exhibit also explores massive explosions, such as the Texas City Disaster of 1947 and the 2013 blast at a fertilizer plant in West. 

The Texas City Disaster display features stark images of a town left in smoldering ruins after a ship carrying highly explosive ammonium nitrate blew up in the harbor. The exhibit documents the unique challenges rescuers faced when responding to unprecedented tragedy that left more than 500 people dead. 

Did Texans learn anything from Texas City? Revisiting the West explosion, viewers can decide for themselves if we’re getting better or worse at disaster response.

As we live in one of five states on the Gulf Coast, Texans are long familiar with the hazards of hurricanes. The single most deadly hurricane to strike U.S. shores hit the Galveston coast in 1900, wiping out more than 6,000 lives. In an era that predated massive mobilizations of federal resources, aid came via wealthy people and private charities like Clara Barton’s Red Cross. Visitors also can witness the destruction wrought by 2008’s Hurricane Ike and how an abundant network of federal, state, and local resources mitigated much of the damage. 

It’s not all bad news. In the past 100 years there have been remarkable advances in technology. The exhibit explores the evolution of transportation, triage, CPR, and defibrillators — developments that can make the difference between life and death in a critical situation. 

Ten audio interviews of Texas physicians and subject matter experts augment some displays, providing a richer context for understanding why the unthinkable actually happened and how medical ingenuity lessened the consequences. 

James Kempema, MD, medical director of Travis County STAR Flight, for instance, informs listeners that the county helicopter service is one of the busiest in the nation because of the region’s susceptibility to flash floods. 

“We have saved numerous people who were in impending flooding and drowning situations, trapped on the top of their vehicles, and we’ve been able to hoist them up and bring them in,” Dr. Kempema says. “During flash flooding in 2016, STAR Flight rescued 36 people, and even four dogs.”

Exhibit highlights also include rare 20th-century photographs on loan from the Department of State Health Services featuring early efforts to combat vector-borne diseases by eradicating mosquito populations. There is also an impressive collection of fallout shelter staples from the Cold War era, when fear of nuclear annihilation loomed.

The display will be open until September 2019, leaving plenty of time for visitors to come in and ask perhaps the most important question of all: Are you prepared for the next disaster?

Last Updated On

October 22, 2018

Originally Published On

October 16, 2018