This is How Medical Professionals Respond to a Crisis

by Allie Preston

Leaders generally don’t answer a crisis with, “Let us do nothing.”

A week after the Economic Council of Martin County sponsored a robot telemarketing blitz urging residents to do nothing to support legislation to cut toxic discharges, Martin Health System’s leadership broke with the group and demanded action. As the area’s biggest employer, Martin Health System took a stand for the Treasure Coast economy and public health, demonstrating how community leaders and medical professionals respond to emergencies.

As sugar lobbyists fought with lawmakers in Tallahassee over revisions to weaken Joe Negron’s SB 10, CEO Rob Lord stood behind Martin Memorial Hospital, on a dock overlooking the St. Lucie River, and declared support for the Now Or Neverglades principles of the bill to stop toxic cyanobacteria blooms from destroying the fragile waterway. Amid rounds of applause, he voiced the need to purchase land in the Everglades Agricultural Area to store, treat, and send clean freshwater south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, and not to coastal estuaries.

Lord and Dr. Steve Parr, director of emergency medicine, described last summer’s increases in emergency room visits when toxic algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee were at their worst. The spike in cases potentially linked to the toxins convinced them there was no other option than to treat the bloom as a public health crisis. They spoke of precautions similar to “the Ebola situation,” and warned residents of the remaining dangers lurking in the muck beneath the surface, and of effects that people who were exposed to cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) may still be years away from seeing.

“Have you been exposed?”

Martin Health System adopted new toxic algae protocols

As the number of patients surged, Martin Health System facilities displayed signs and added new screening procedures to monitor symptoms consistent with exposure to algae toxins. Lord and Parr acknowledged the difficulties of quantifying the total number of cases directly related to exposure, and cautioned that proving links between algae and illness requires data and analysis that take time. But as stewards of public health, they were shocked at the idea of waiting for that analysis before taking action. 

Statistics don’t mean much in a crowded ER suddenly filled with cases of nausea and vomiting, breathing problems, skin rashes and infections, and aching limbs and joints. As Lord said, despite what people on the “other side” of will try to argue isn’t statistically significant or proven, “the truth is that there are toxins in the algae that we know about, and there are probably a lot of toxins that we don’t know enough about…waiting for evidence is the wrong answer. We have enough circumstantial evidence that something needs to be done right away.”

Would an ER doctor let his kids swim in the St. Lucie?

How does a doctor protect his family from cyanobacteria?

As an ER physician and the father of four children, Dr. Steve Parr grapples with whether he should let his family near the water. He shared his answer with the audience, calling this issue paramount to the lives of all residents of South Florida.

Yes, he lets his kids swim in local waters. But they avoid the river entirely, particularly when the water temperature exceeds 68 degrees. They don’t swim anywhere when cyanobacteria are visible. Even when the estuary water looks clean, he urged caution. “I don’t think it’s a good idea and I don’t put my family in this water. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Economic Impact and Leadership

Lord closed the press conference calling for action by businesses and business-focused lawmakers to stop the discharges and fix Florida’s broken water management system. With a workforce of more than 4,000, Martin Health System depends on clean water to attract talent. Efforts to preserve the beauty and the safety of his community are an essential part of Lord’s ability to recruit the best and brightest in the medical field. He called the legislation to build a dynamic reservoir in the EAA a bold initiative to save Florida’s environmental future, which doubles as a safeguard against immediate illness and future medical disasters unknown. As for the cost: “It will never cost less than it does today.”

After passing the senate, the bill could morph further in the Florida House. Lord’s position demonstrates awareness, despite political horse-trading, that the crux of the solution remains storing, treating, and moving water south, as the Now Or Neverglades Declaration says. When facing an adversary as entrenched and rich as Big Sugar, focus and leadership like Martin Health System’s is indispensable–and far too uncommon.

And for all the reasons Lord and Parr gave to support cutting discharges to the St. Lucie, the most important may have been simple civic responsibility and pride. Parr put it plainly: “This is Florida. This is America. And we shouldn’t have to swim in polluted water, so let’s do something about it.”