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The River Around Us

'Immersion experience' takes on new meaning for students caught in the recent flood in West Virginia

By Pam Auchmutey

Story Photo

This photo shows the flood waters looking out the front doors of the Clendenin Health Center in West Virginia last June. Two Emory advanced practice nursing students were caught in the flood during a two-week immersion experience with Cabin Creek Health Systems, which serves families in central Appalachia. Photograph by Phil Dillard

On a Thursday morning in late June, Emory nursing students Phil Dillard and Abby Wetzel hit the road in Charleston, West Virginia, bound for the Clendenin Health Center, some 30 minutes northeast. Their drive had become routine during their two-week immersion with Cabin Creek Health Systems, an organization founded by coal miners to serve families in central Appalachia. During the next 36 hours, Dillard and Wetzel would assist Clendenin staff and patients in ways they never imagined.

Since 2010, students have traveled to West Virginia each summer to gain practical experience by providing care for underserved patients at the Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) operated by Cabin Creek. This year, seven advanced practice students took part, led by Emory nursing faculty advisers Carolyn Clevenger and Debbie Gunter. Each day, the students fanned out to work at four FQHCs outside of Charleston. Near the end of their second week, the rain was heavy over much of West Virginia, which was under a flash flood watch.

That Thursday, Dillard and Wetzel, both 15N, arrived at the Clendenin Health Center as usual. Wetzel parked her car in front of the center, housed in a handsome three-story brick building some 30 feet from the bank of the Elk River. Dillard saw patients until noon and then turned his attention to homework. Wetzel continued seeing patients in another part of the clinic. By early afternoon, it started to rain.

Several clinic staff soon left to check on their homes since some area roads had flooded. Others stayed, aided by Wetzel, to finish seeing patients. By 3:45 PM, no one could leave. The parking lot and street in front of the clinic were knee-deep in swift-moving brown water.

“We were just about to get all of the patients out and then hop in the car and get out and all of a sudden, the flood just happened,” says Dillard, an emergency nurse practitioner student in the Fuld Palliative Care Fellowship program. “It was amazing. You could see water rushing around buildings and in the back door and out the front door of a house. I would not have felt safe walking from the clinic to the fire department across the street.”

Everyone at the Clendenin Health Center, including the seniors living in basement and third-floor apartments, had to stay put. The clinic, located on the main floor, was a safe place to be, with potable water, a kitchen and food, electricity, rest rooms, and plenty of flashlights and working cell phones. “If you could pick where you wanted to be during a flood, that’s where you wanted to be,” says Wetzel, a student in the family nurse practitioner/nurse-midwifery program. 

By early evening, the rain subsided, and the water stopped rising. All was calm until about 9:00 PM, when rumor spread that the dam upriver might be opened to avoid a breach. Within the hour, the water from the Elk River rose and lapped at the sides of the clinic building. With water in the basement ankle deep, it was time to evacuate the clinic’s elderly residents.

As staff and students began knocking on apartment doors, the power went out and so did the elevator. Armed with flashlights, everyone helped each senior up the stairs and outside into an all-terrain vehicle for the short ride to the fire station across the street. 

The timing of the evacuation proved providential. Around midnight, the basement flooded to the ceiling and set off the building’s fire alarm, which blared and flashed for more than two hours. Dillard, Wetzel, and a physician assistant (PA) student from another school escaped to the stairwell, where the noise was less obtrusive, and tried to rest.

Early the next day, Dillard awoke and looked out a window in the stairwell. The cars in front of the clinic—including Wetzel’s—were submerged. The fire station and other town buildings were flooded 8 to 9 feet deep. Before the floodwaters rose, the seniors at the fire station had been moved to higher ground.

“We realized we were going to be there a while,” Wetzel says. “We were in the middle of the river. It was all around us.”

The wait until rescue began. Come afternoon, the water receded quickly, leaving behind a sea of smelly, debris-littered mud. Finally, word came around 5:00 PM—prepare to evacuate. Clinic staff and students rallied again, this time to help senior residents down from the third floor and onto a National Guard truck, which took them to a church a half-mile away. The students were among the last to leave around 7:00 PM. 


Once at the church, Wetzel helped some of the medically fragile residents with their health needs, while Dillard helped others onto another truck bound for a high school in Charleston.

Around 9:00 PM, Dillard, Wetzel, and the PA student also were headed to Charleston in a heavy-duty pickup truck driven by the father of the PA student. 

Hot showers, pizza, and salad awaited Dillard and Wetzel at their hotel in Charleston, where a relieved Clevenger and five fellow nursing students greeted them. Students at the other Cabin Creek clinics came through the flood unscathed.

Wetzel continues to reflect on the insights gained from the students’ experience during the third-worst flood in West Virginia history.

“There are a lot of people in West Virginia facing challenges that a lot of us can’t fully relate to,” Wetzel adds. “The best thing we can do as students is go on immersion trips like this one and just be humble and learn and take in everything we can. This trip was very affirming to me for a lot of reasons. It was a reminder of how resilient people are when they have to be.”

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