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The Determination to Make a Difference

Nov 15, 2021, 12:46 PM by Ed Baum

Disaster Relief Deployments Take Nurse Michael Piela Far Beyond the Clinic

Code 3. Emergency sirens scream and lights flash on the deputy sheriff’s patrol car. Sansum Clinic RN Specialist and EMT

Sansum Clinic employee Michael Piela

Michael Piela is accompanying the officer on a high-speed drive to quickly bring aid to an elderly man who accidentally shot himself with a rifle. The situation arose while Piela’s emergency medical volunteer team was being escorted to a nearby city to offer disaster relief. Intense situations like this are a way of life for Piela. “There is no greater cause than saving a life, or significantly improving someone’s health status,” he shares.

Piela’s routine work is at Sansum Clinic’s Ambulatory Surgery Center in Santa Barbara, where he and a dedicated staff provide care for a high volume of patients in a fast-paced environment, which significantly ramped up during the pandemic. “We work long shifts taking care of our patients with a wide variety of health conditions and needs,” he reports.

Along with his clinic duties, Piela participates in emergency and disaster medical service efforts through Disaster Healthcare Volunteers of California (DHV), the American Red Cross, and the Medical Reserve Corps. Piela spent 96 days on COVID-19 deployment during 2020 alone, volunteering more than 1,200 hours in leadership and clinical roles for California task forces. In March of 2020, he spearheaded a medical team for the United States Navy Hospital Ship Mercy (T-AH-19), which was moored in the Los Angeles harbor. The focus of the USNS Mercy was to provide medical and surgical assistance for overwhelmed local hospitals. “At times, we had to provide treatment and care of COVID-19 patients around the clock for days until other medical resources became available,” Michael explains.

In April of 2020, he signed up for 12-hour shifts in 100-degree heat, in full PPE to support a large, drive-through COVID-19 testing operation at a federal medical site in Riverside County. Immediately after this challenging assignment, he and other volunteers headed to a rehabilitation and nursing center that was overwhelmed by cases of the virus. This was a high-risk assignment, before vaccines were on the horizon. “There were lives at stake, patients needed care, and we were the only medical resources available,” Piela describes. “There is no question that we would do it all over again without hesitation. We volunteered to make a difference, do our part in this pandemic, and hopefully save lives.”

A veteran of the United States Coast Guard, Piela has successfully completed more than 20 training courses at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) at Fort McClellan in Alabama, the country’s most prestigious all-hazard training center, as well as courses from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When he accepts a deployment with the DHV or other organizations, Piela takes unpaid time off from Sansum Clinic.

He describes a deployment in October and November 2018, when he volunteered with the American Red Cross in rural Georgia and Florida after tornadoes, hurricanes and floods caused widespread destruction and cut off small communities from civilization. “I will never forget the smiles, tears of joy and relief, and the gratitude from the victims and local volunteers as they recognized that help had arrived,” he recalls. “It is amazing how powerful a calm and friendly voice, a smile or holding a person’s hand can be, in addition to providing emergency medical aid and patient care.” This attitude, alongside all of Piela’s experiences and unique education, are woven into his role treating patients at Sansum Clinic’s Ambulatory Surgery Center.

Closer to home, Piela volunteers for the Santa Barbara County Medical Reserve Corps. He has vaccinated thousands of community members against influenza and now COVID-19. He provides emergency medical care and first aid during local disasters, large local community gatherings, events and festivals, and distributes N95 masks when wildfires impact our air quality.

On his rare days off, Piela enjoys escaping into the Santa Barbara back country on long hikes with close friends, enjoying nature and searching for quiet and peace. He is humble about his dedication to improving the lives of others. He shrugs off the title of “hero” commonly given to healthcare workers and emergency medical personnel. “In my opinion, none of us chose to be heroes,” he says. “We just do what we do best—take care of our patients with full commitment, empathy and passion for our work.”

For the full story on Michael Piela, click here.

Photo Caption: Sansum Clinic RN Specialist and EMT, Michael Piela