USU students have ‘earth-shattering’ rotation in Alaska

broken street from the earthquake
By Sarah Marshall

He was on the fifth day of his clinical rotation at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Anchorage, Alaska, and was about to see a patient in a flight medicine clinic the morning of Nov. 30. Air Force Maj. Theodore Szerszenski, a student in Uniformed Services University’s (USU) Graduate School of Nursing (GSN), stopped in to see his preceptor to discuss the patient’s case when the building suddenly began to rattle and ceiling tiles began falling to the ground, filling the air with dust and debris.

product fallen from shelves in a grocery store
A view of the commissary on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson,
Alaska, after a 7.0 earthquake shook stock from shelves Nov. 30.
(U.S. Air Force)
A major earthquake was ripping through the city, and as the shaking intensified, pipes burst from behind the walls, causing water to fill their offices and hallways. Szerszenski and his preceptor, along with their non-commissioned-officer-in-charge who was in the office with them at the time, braced themselves inside the doorway as the crumbling building continued to jerk every which way.

“It was like being on a bad amusement park ride,” Szerszenski said.

When the rumbling finally subsided about 30 or 40 seconds later, they quickly made their way through a few “waterfalls” to escape the severely damaged building. Luckily, everyone made it out safely, he said. Once outside, everything seemed silent except for the sounds of fire engines in the distance. Despite being cold and wet, the Flight Medicine team quickly shifted gears, assuming their disaster response roles to provide ambulance coverage. The Flight Medicine building later closed due to the damage, and the clinic was moved to the main JBER hospital on base.

Meanwhile, across the base, Szerszenski’s GSN classmate, Air Force Maj. Bryan Hersch, was also in the midst of his clinical rotation. Hersch was getting ready to see a patient in the Family Health clinic in the JBER hospital that morning when, out of nowhere, “the building shook like crazy, taking everyone by surprise,” he said.

“We all ducked and covered as the lights dimmed and power went out,” Hersch said. “Everyone was pretty calm though, as we all evacuated our rooms, and made sure there were no patients left behind. Overall, it was very orderly and everyone was cooperative and understanding as we found the nearest exit and re-grouped at the egress point outside and accounted for everyone … Once we realized the damage that was done, and the extent of those affected, it all started to sink in.”

He noted that the hospital staff were “amazing.” It was their teamwork and leadership that kept a difficult situation moving in a safe direction, he said. The hospital’s readiness teams were quickly activated and the Family Health clinic prepared to see patients, he explained.

aerial view of damaged road
A photo taken during an aerial damage assessment on Nov. 30, 2018, following the earthquake that hit the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna Valley areas. (U.S. Air National Guard photo /Released)

“We gathered supplies, checked our bags for equipment available and made adjustments as the patients were diverted in our direction,” Hersch said.

He added that they also made sure the EKG and crash cart were ready to go and that the oxygen tanks were stocked. He helped ensure the medics had supplies in their pockets, pressure dressings, trauma shears, and various other supplies should they need to be diverted again. Luckily, there were no trauma patients. Most of the injuries they saw were lacerations from broken glass and falls from slipping, Hersch said.

Fortunately, there were no reported deaths or life-threatening injuries as a result of the quake, but the region was still shaken from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The quake’s epicenter was about eight miles north of Anchorage and was felt at a depth of some 25 miles. It initially left about 50,000 residents in the area without power, and hundreds of buildings, roads, and bridges were damaged or closed. In the hours after, several smaller aftershocks continued to rock the area, including a 5.8 aftershock about five minutes later. Alaskans are no strangers to earthquakes, though. The state sits on a major fault line between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. However, most are so minor they go unnoticed.

men evaluate a hole in the ceiling
In less than 48 hours after the 7.0 magnitude Earthquake
striking the Anchorage area, JBER is mission ready and
capable of resuming regular operations. Although many
mission operations have resumed, many facilities, including
the commissary, sustained significant damages requiring a
massive clean-up effort. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman
1st Class Crystal A. Jenkins
After the 7.0 quake, JBER leaders toured the facilities on the installation to assess the damages. The commissary endured significant damage, but more than 120 volunteers and 60 employees turned out to help with the clean-up effort to help make sure the store could open sooner. Due to the quick response and combined efforts of essential and non-essential personnel, the installation was capable of resuming regular operations in less than 48 hours after the earthquake. Outside the installation, crews repaired most major road damage within four days, according to news reports.

“I am grateful that out of all the damage the earthquake caused to the surrounding area that there were few critical injuries,” Hersch said.

Szerszenski shared similar sentiments, feeling fortunate that those around him made it to safety.

The students’ preceptors, who provide on-site supervision and mentorship during their clinical rotation – sang their praises after the dust settled.

"Maj. ‘Ski’ responded promptly and appropriately during our 7.0 earthquake,” said Szerszenski’s preceptor, Air Force Capt. Billy J. Atherton, a flight medicine physician assistant. “Our clinic was devastated and had to be evacuated immediately. He was eager to assist when and where he was able. He helped us clear the building ensuring all patients were safe and he helped us quickly salvage essential supplies. He also remained with us as a field response team in preparation for a mass causality. His quick response and willingness to put himself in harm’s way to ensure the safety of others is remarkable and speaks volumes to his character."

Air Force Maj. Jonathan Beatty, a GSN alumni and Hersch’s preceptor, said that they were fortunate the patient flow was minimal, but they were able to stand ready due in part to his leadership.

“He helped us set up the minimal team treatment area for potential mass casualties, and helped me treat and assess several patients,” Beatty said. “He helped me take charge of a group of techs and jumped right in getting things done. Through it all, he was calm and proficient. He also made sure Maj. (Szerszenski) was doing well and coordinated with me to make sure they both had their needs met. I’ve enjoyed having him in clinic. It’s been an unusual week, but he took it in stride.”

Both students will report back to USU this week to complete their upcoming exams before a well-earned winter break.