A Prospero Social Worker’s Story During the Texas Freeze
Prospero Health social worker Karen Possessky is no stranger to disaster. As a critical incident responder and American Red Cross volunteer, Karen has helped communities around the country recover from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she spent six weeks at ground zero in New York City. When a historic winter storm descended on Texas in February and crippled the state’s power grid, Karen drew from her experiences with disaster relief to remain calm, improvise, and support Prospero’s patients and families.
No power, heat, or water
The blackouts started on Sunday, Valentine’s Day. While Karen only lost power for ten minutes at a time, millions of people across Texas would sit in the dark for days.
“I only experienced two days of rolling blackouts,” Karen explained. “I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation at first because I was minimally impacted. I was in this sweet pocket that had power and water the entire time.”
On Monday, Karen began her day as usual, working with patients and caregivers to make sure they receive the medical care and services they need to remain safely at home. During one of these conversations, Karen heard the steady drip of a faucet in the background. It turned out the caregiver’s father had soiled himself, so she was trying to collect enough water to give him a bath. That was the moment Karen realized it was not “business as usual.”
“I started tuning into all the different territories we have in Texas to see which ones were getting hit the hardest. It was crazy because all of them were water-challenged and dealing with power outages—all of them!”
With this dire situation unfolding, Karen and the rest of the Prospero team reached out to as many patients and caregivers as they could to assess their needs and connect them to resources such as warming shelters and organizations offering food and water. The most pressing concerns for people evolved as the week went on.
“On Tuesday and Wednesday, they were saying, ‘I’m freezing cold,’” Karen recalled. “But by Friday, it was ‘my water pressure is very low’ or ‘I don’t have any clean water to drink.’”
Serving the most vulnerable patients
Faced with a patchwork relief effort on the ground, Karen coordinated with her other Prospero care teammates—including some outside Texas—to identify places where patients and their loved ones could seek warmth, water, and food. They worried most about the patients who could not leave their homes because of the severity of their health conditions, particularly those who use supplemental oxygen to breathe. Without the support of the Prospero team, this vulnerable population may have been left to navigate an incredibly stressful and scary situation on their own.
“There were several weather shelters set up and great charitable organizations like the Red Cross handing out supplies in all parts of Texas. But what if the person couldn’t get there? One, there’s snow and ice on the ground, so you can’t drive. Two, for people who use a walker, there’s a fall risk. And then you add to that the risk of these patients with complex illness getting COVID.”
In one case, Karen contacted the police and asked them to do a wellness check on a patient because the patient’s phone line had been busy for several hours. When the police arrived at her home, they determined that she needed to be hospitalized.
In another case, a Prospero nurse practitioner stayed in constant contact with an oxygen-dependent woman to ensure she was safe and knew to call 911 if her power went out. When the patient ran out of food for her cat, the nurse practitioner picked up some cat food and brought it to her home, along with the patient’s favorite treat, Skittles.
“This patient has a ritual with Skittles where she likes to line them up by color before she eats them,” Karen said. “I cannot tell you how meaningful it was for her to have that little itty bitty piece of control in a moment where so much was out of her control.”
Moving forward from the storm
As temperatures dropped, pipes burst, and food spoiled, Karen and the Prospero care team focused first and foremost on the people under their care. But once the worst of the crisis passed, they took a moment to face the stress that came with caring for patients while trying to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
Four days after the first blackouts, everyone on the local Prospero team had power once again. Karen seized this opportunity to lead a group debriefing session similar to the ones she facilitated in her previous disaster work.
“It was a tearjerker because we had all been impacted in some way—worried about patients while some people on the team were managing so much with their own loved ones they’re caregivers for. We were able to process how hard it was to worry all week about whether you were on the grid and how you were going to use that connectivity when you were.”
For Karen, this crisis highlighted the need to improve the existing disaster-response systems and resources in Texas to meet the needs of people with complex or chronic illness. The Prospero team was able to rise to meet the most urgent needs, but this is an opportunity for everyone to develop strategies that will better prepare them for the next emergency. Seeing just how vulnerable this patient population can be in a disaster, Karen is now even more committed to serving them: “I am so honored to work with an organization that advocates on behalf of patients and their families with serious illness. I am passionate about advocating for their self-worth and dignity, especially during what was likely a very scary time in their life.”