People with special medical needs especially vulnerable during hurricanes

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FOX 13's Dr. Joette Giovinco volunteered as a staff physician during Hurricane Irma at the University of South Florida's Sundome.

TAMPA (FOX 13) - For people dependent on oxygen, refrigerated insulin, or dialysis - or who suffer from autism, seizure disorders, cancer, dementia, and other disorders - special needs shelters can be the difference between life and death during a hurricane.

Because of Irma’s path toward Tampa Bay, the special needs shelter at the USF Sundome - the same facility where I received my bachelor’s degree more than three decades ago - was filled to capacity. 

I was told, however, no one who showed up would be refused.  

All total, between staff, individuals with medical needs, and their families, the Sundome was filled with almost 800 people. 

People were lined up in cots throughout the dome, including in the corridors, while pets were placed in another room, tucked inside.   

From Pomeranians to Staffordshire Terriers, volunteers weathered the winds and rain to walk them as many times as possible before it was too treacherous to venture out again.

Food service personnel graciously served everyone, three meals a day plus snacks. Medical and undergraduate students from USF provided around the clock assistance.  

Tampa Fire Rescue was also on-hand to provide care and transport individuals with more serious problems to local hospitals, when necessary.

Two rows roped off for hospice patients, their nurses, and caregivers allowed those nearing the end of life to rest with as little disruption as possible.

In the evening, the group was treated to a calming concert by a performer alternating between his keyboard and saxophone.  

What was equally comforting was how people from all walks of life co-existed, sleeping side-by-side, with barely enough room to fit special devices and personal items in between.   

Friendships formed.

Caregivers with medical skills reached out to strangers, acting as advocates and assisting whenever they were needed.   

Some of them did so with such fervor that their actions were indistinguishable from the staff.

The hard work and kindness didn’t end when the threat was over. For some, like those in Polk and Collier counties, new challenges were likely awaiting.   We can only hope they encounter a similar level of kindness when they get home.