James Macneal


For Dr. Jay Macneal, the desire to help people in need is a basic human instinct.

That’s why Macneal, EMS medical director for Mercyhealth, joined a medical team run through the National Disaster Medical System as a paramedic in college.

More recently, he spent 17 days in Florida around the time Hurricane Maria hit the state.

The National Disaster Medical System consists of about 5,000 medical and emergency professionals who provide critical health care in places dealing with natural disasters.

Macneal shared details from his experience with The Gazette:

Q: How did you get involved with the National Disaster Medical System?

A: I heard about it from some of the other paramedics I worked with in Toledo, Ohio, when I was doing my undergrad in college. I was a paramedic before that. I knew that they needed paramedics, and I signed up, and that was that.

Q: What kinds of professionals get involved?

A: They take emergency medical technicians, paramedics, nurses, doctors, logistics people, safety, communications, information technology professionals, administrative people and more.

There’s a ton of different roles on these teams. When they open the hiring, you have to apply. Then you go through a background check and a screening process. They validate and credential everything. It’s open to most people who play a role during a disaster.

We had mental health counselors there, too, talking to people, trying to help them out. A lot of the community resources for someone, let’s say who is homeless, now there’s no community resources to support them. So a lot of mental health issues we’re dealing with.

Q: Where were you deployed and for how long?

A: I was deployed for 17 days. I was in several locations in Florida before, during and after the hurricane. (I was in) Orlando, Fort Myers and toward the end I was in Atlanta, in the event I would be needed in the Puerto Rico mission.

I ended up not being needed because they had enough (people). They had resources there, and they were struggling to accommodate all the resources they had down there.

Q: What services did you provide?

A: Your primary mission once you get set up is whatever your primary occupation is, so I punch in as a physician.

Up until the point you are up and running and treating patients, you’re moving furniture and moving equipment and setting up operations and helping set up computers and printers, moving supplies. You just kind of do a little bit of everything.

It’s a disaster situation, so when it’s setup time, everybody’s logistics. When it’s breakdown time, everybody’s logistics.

I pretty much worked as an emergency room doctor while I was there and took care of the same type of things I would see in the emergency department at Mercy.

Q: What was the most common need or problem?

A: There were a lot of different issues. One of the main issues was people couldn’t get in to see their doctors because their doctor’s office didn’t have power, so they weren’t open.

We were doing medication refills and blood pressure and diabetes care, but then we were taking care of people that were involved in motor vehicle crashes, people (who) stepped on nails and the usual types of injuries you would expect when people are recovering.

(We saw) respiratory issues, pneumonia, wound infections, lacerations, pretty much anything that happens in a standard area you can expect to see. On top of that, you got all the extra issues from not having food, water, electricity and basic health care available.

Q: What other disasters have you responded to?

A: (Hurricane) Katrina. I’ve gone to flooding. I’ve gone to some national mass gathering events. Hurricane Irene. I think I’ve gone to, like, five or six hurricanes, some other events over the years. It’s all kind of a blur, to be honest.

Q: Why did you get involved?

A: I decided that during a time of need, I wanted to use my skills, respond and help people. It’s kind of a basic human emotion to want to help people in a time of need, and that passion has only grown as I’ve become a physician.

Q: What kinds of things did you see? Did any particular moments stand out?

A: I think (moments) when we took care of some of the children who were involved in the disasters. We were able to provide some wound care for them, and we were able to get them care more promptly than if they had to wait six or eight hours to get into the emergency department because things were so backed up.

Q: What is the process for getting chosen?

A: A roster is built for each team, and they are on call a certain amount of times per year. If you’re on the roster, when there’s an event, they say, “You’re activated,” and you go.

There are similar protections like people have with the National Guard. Employers have to release you. They don’t have to pay you; they do have to release you if you’re ordered to go.

Mercy has always been very supportive of me. I have no problem leaving home, leaving my wife with the four kids. All my coworkers at Mercy are active in helping my wife, bringing her food and meals and stuff. She did a great job dealing with four kids by herself while I’m gone.

Q: Do you have plans to return?

A: It’s always a possibility. I don’t have any immediate plans in the future to go back.

Q: What would you tell people who want to help but don’t know how?

A: I would refer them to the website for the Wisconsin Disaster Medical Assistance team. Most of these teams are always looking for people.

It’s paid. As a physician, we don’t do it for finances. It doesn’t cover the expenses of being gone as a physician, but we’re so blessed to be physicians and have our jobs, that it’s just kind of a way to give back.

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