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The Determination to Make a Difference

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. Michael Piela, RN, EMT is accompanying the deputy on a high-speed drive out to an isolated rural farm house to provide aid to an elderly man who accidentally shot himself in the head with a rifle. Local emergency service units were too far away to respond quickly to the frantic call from the man’s nephew. This was not Mr. Piela’s direct assignment at the time. He just happened to be available to help because the deputy sheriff was escorting Piela’s emergency medical volunteer team through rough neighborhoods during disaster relief efforts in a nearby city. Intense situations like this are a way of life for Piela. “For me, integrity is doing the right thing, all the time, even when others are not watching,” he says. “There is no greater cause than saving a life, or significantly improving someone’s health status."

Michael Thomas Piela is a registered nurse (RN) and emergency medical technician (EMT) at Sansum Clinic Ambulatory Surgery Center in Santa Barbara. At the clinic location on West Pueblo street, Piela and a dedicated staff provide care for a high volume of patients in a fast-paced environment. “Case numbers have been very high during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. “Our staff has worked long and very busy clinical shifts for months and months taking care of our Sansum patients with a wide variety of health conditions and needs.”

Along with his staff duties for Sansum Clinic, he also provides emergency and disaster medical services through Disaster Healthcare Volunteers of California (DHV), the American Red Cross, and the Medical Reserve Corps. He was on COVID-19 deployment for 96 days in 2020. He also helps extensively with medical response during natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, tornados and floods across the U.S. During public health emergencies, Mr. Piela works long shifts at federal medical sites, alternate care sites and other facilities that require emergency staffing. 

During volunteer deployments, Michael and medical disaster response teams provide first aid, medical screenings and emergency medical care to firefighters and other first responders, support personnel and evacuees. He has filled many roles including task force leader, medical team leader and first aid station medical team lead. When Piela accepts a disaster deployment with the DHV or other organizations, he takes unpaid time off from Sansum Clinic.

Bravely Bringing Hope

In October and November 2018, Piela volunteered numerous hours providing medical care in evacuation shelters and serving on mobile response teams 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. The teams assessed medical care needs and damage to properties, and provided mass care including food, water and blankets. “We drove hundreds of miles every day, searching for people in need,” he says. “These were long and tiring days. We didn’t know what we might find during our searches. But spirits soared high every morning as we received our assignments during incident briefings."

Roads were blocked by fallen trees, piles of debris from destroyed homes, damaged vehicles and hazardous fallen power lines. Mapping applications on cell phones and devices were unreliable because service was interrupted. The teams used traditional paper maps, common sense and experience to navigate through an unfamiliar countryside. One day they arrived at a small town in Georgia that had experienced extreme loss. Homes were destroyed. There was no power, water or communication with other towns. 

“I will never forget the smiles, tears of joy and relief, and the gratitude from the disaster victims and local volunteers as they recognized that help had arrived to bring resources to their challenged community,” Piela recalls. “Tough rural firemen were breaking down in tears, telling us how we had brought hope and taken a huge load off their shoulders. I felt proud to be there. It is amazing how powerful a calm and friendly voice, a smile or holding a victim’s hand can be, in addition to providing emergency medical aid and patient care.”

Closer to home, Piela volunteers for the Santa Barbara County Medical Reserve Corps. He has vaccinated thousands of community members during annual influenza vaccine clinics, the H1N1 mass prophylaxis and the current SARS-CoV2 Coronavirus pandemic. He provides emergency medical care and first aid during large local community gatherings, events and festivals. And he distributes N95 masks when wildfires impact our air quality in Santa Barbara County. 

During Isla Vista Halloween and Deltopia events when as many as 15,000 college students and visitors crowd the streets, he and his teams support local emergency medical services personnel and hospital systems, staffing first aid stations as throngs of young people redefine the concept of a party. “During medical assignments at these enormous events in Isla Vista we treat lacerations from walking barefoot through glass shards, facial fractures and hematoma from fights, severe alcohol intoxication, drug overdoses, and trauma from falling off cliffs and balconies,” he says. “We work in emergency medical services field treatment sites and Medical Reserve Corps first aid stations, and we provide patient transport.”

The parties sometimes devolve into riots, requiring intervention from law enforcement and escalating the need for emergency medical care. The volunteer medical teams treat upper respiratory complications, nausea, vomiting, and severe lacrimation from tear gas exposure when authorities strive to control disorderly crowds

Last year alone, Piela volunteered more than 1,200 hours over approximately three months during SARS-CoV2 deployments, in leadership roles for task forces and medical teams in California and working in his medical capacity. In March 2020 he spearheaded a medical team of nurses and medics 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 care to assist overwhelmed local hospitals. “Our emphasis was the support of public health department staff in Los Angeles County and Orange County,” he says. “We assessed the status and critical needs of skilled nursing and hospice care facilities that had the highest numbers of new COVID cases and deaths."

The team provided site and staffing assessments, status reports and resource management including personal protective equipment (PPE). They also set up donning and doffing stations, isolation wards and COVID patient care coverage. “At times, we had to provide treatment and care of COVID patients around the clock for days until medical resources from other facilities, counties or the California Health Corps became available,” he explains. “We staffed that medical facility until it was safe to hand over the responsibility.”

During his deployment with the USNS Mercy, riots broke out in Los Angeles County. “It was a very unsettling time,” Piela recalls. “While we voluntarily risked our health and our lives to take care of sick and dying COVID patients in L.A. County, other people chose to destroy their own community with arson, robbery and public unrest. Honestly, we were very nervous at times as we drove through the dark streets of L.A. County, hoping to avoid confrontation as we commuted between our staging site and the medical facilities we served. I was grateful to have my situational awareness, professional experience and the protection of the U.S. Navy security teams."

Stepping Up to Help in Hard Times

The commitment and integrity of Piela and the Disaster Healthcare Volunteers of California are illustrated in a story about a night from a deployment at a federal medical site in Riverside County in April 2020. Based on the high concentration of COVID-19 cases in the eastern section of Riverside County and the Coachella Valley, a federal medical station was established at the county fairgrounds. To allow for isolation, containment and treatment of COVID-19 patients in support of the local hospitals, a large-scale alternate care site had been set up and staffed with a DHV medical team assembled from all over California.

“We supported the local public health team by staffing a large drive-through COVID testing site at the county fairgrounds,” he recalls. “These were 12-hour shifts in temperatures around 100 degrees every day in full PPE including N95 masks, face shields, gowns, gloves and booties.”

One evening after a long shift as the medical team rested and hydrated, the incident commander addressed the volunteer medical personnel. The commander told them that a rehabilitation and nursing center in Riverside with a large number of patients who had tested positive for COVID was at a breaking point. Patient care workers were overwhelmed and exhausted. Some staff members were getting sick themselves. Nobody was available to staff the facility for the upcoming night shift to provide care for patients.

“The incident commander said he had no other resources available, but that he would fully understand if we would not volunteer for this high-risk mission,” Piela says. “I raised my hand and said I would be ready to head over there as soon as we could load up our PPE and medical gear. I will never forget how I felt when the medics on my team also raised their hands and shouted out that if Michael would be going, they would all go too. I felt such pride for their commitment after a long and difficult shift in full gear in the heat. They were exhausted, but they still had the determination to make a difference.”

The commander told the team they hadn’t even heard all the details yet. “I said we had heard all the information we needed,” Piela continues. “There were lives at stake, patients needed care, and we were the only medical resources available. It was settled from our side. We provided care for more than 80 patients that night in a medical facility we had never worked in, with patients whose medical history we did not know. Large amounts of medication were administered. And unfortunately, patients were dying or already dead that night.”

This was before vaccinations were on the horizon. The entire medical facility was contaminated, and all patients were considered sick with COVID-19 based on their symptoms and close quarters. No bathroom or breakroom was safe. “It rained heavily all night,” Piela recalls. “We were hungry, thirsty and bone tired on the two-hour ride back to the federal medical site the next morning. All that said, 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."

Piela modestly downplays the heroic nature of the work he and the volunteer teams perform. “Healthcare workers and emergency medical personnel have been called heroes a lot since the COVID pandemic has taken over our lives, not only in our country but worldwide,” he says. “In my opinion, none of us chose to be heroes. We just do what we do best—take care of our patients with full commitment, empathy and passion for our work.”
Mr. Piela has been registered through the DHV system in California for almost fifteen years. Healthcare providers such as registered nurses, physicians, paramedics and others can volunteer their expertise and skills with the State of California. Officials validate volunteers’ credentials, experience and training so they can be deployed immediately upon request in an emergency. 

Prior to his medical career, Piela worked in law enforcement, serving and protecting the citizens of Munich and Bavaria. He trained with police, fire rescue, emergency medical and military units from all over the world. “In law enforcement, I came across situations that led me to believe that a change to the field of medicine would allow me to help others in even more positive ways,” he reveals. “In 1998 I embarked on my second career path, which included training and licensing for emergency medical services and healthcare in California. Today I am a proud U.S. citizen, working and volunteering in the medical field.”

Years of providing emergency medical care have given Mr. Piela an inspiring perspective. “While there are policies, procedures and guidelines to be followed at every disaster deployment and medical mission, at times you just have to follow your heart and make a leap of faith,” he says. “You have to take risks, and decide if the mission outcome outweighs the possible personal consequences. You cannot be afraid to fail, and you can’t focus on how unfair life may be. You need to move forward, with determination and professionalism, and be ready to make decisions in a heartbeat"

“I get asked many times why I volunteer for weeks at a time, using unpaid time off, and spending my free time assisting people I never met before and may never see again. My answer has always been and always will be: Somebody has to do it.”

Michael Piela 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 CDP is the United States’ prestigious all-hazard training center: “Training the best for the worst.” Piela also received training from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic he served his country volunteering with the United States Coast Guard, conducting vessel safety inspections, providing boating and waterway education, crew first aid, medical interventions training and maritime safety patrols.

On his rare days off, he enjoys escaping into the Santa Barbara back country on long hikes with close friends, enjoying nature and searching for quiet and peace. He looks forward to times when reduced need for his services allow him to visit dearly-missed friends and relatives in Germany and Italy. 

Sansum Clinic Ambulatory Surgery Center; 317 W Pueblo St Santa Barbara, CA 93105; (805) 681-7500