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Dome - Eye on the Storm

Dome May 2014

Eye on the Storm

Date: May 1, 2014

Thomas Kirsch (holding IV) traveled to Haiti with the Johns Hopkins Go Team to assist earthquake victims, such as the one seen here suffering from shock. The Johns Hopkins team worked in “austere” disaster conditions.
Thomas Kirsch (holding IV) traveled to Haiti with the Johns Hopkins Go Team to assist earthquake victims, such as the one seen here suffering from shock. The Johns Hopkins team worked in “austere” disaster conditions.

In 1975, after a deadly tornado ripped through homes, churches and schools in Omaha, Neb., a high school senior named Tom Kirsch set out to search for anyone who needed help. Now an emergency doctor at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Kirsch recalls laboring for days, pulling debris from buildings and cars, chipping in as a Red Cross volunteer, and even clearing roads where the storm had left its mark.

Since then, the reflex to offer such aid has led the 56-year-old physician to many devastated locations: New York’s ground zero, earthquake-ravaged portions of Haiti and Chile, regions of Pakistan damaged by flooding, and areas of Louisiana and New Jersey ruined by hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Kirsch has served on the front lines of medicine, helping those most in need. Thanks to a graduate degree in public health, he has also studied ways to lessen the impact that disasters have on people and property and to gauge the best methods of distributing humanitarian aid.

Last October, the American College of Emergency Physicians recognized Kirsch’s expertise in the emerging field of disaster health and medicine by presenting him with its first Disaster Medical Sciences Award.

“Tom’s not an armchair disaster expert. He gets his boots on the ground. That’s where you learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the medical and public health response,” says Gabor Kelen, director of the Johns Hopkins Department of Emergency Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR). “His work is cutting-edge because it’s informed by research and is multidisciplinary in nature.”

Kirsch was among the first wave of American doctors to arrive in Haiti in January 2010, after the massive earthquake. He entered the shattered country with the Johns Hopkins Go Team, a special group of doctors and nurses trained to respond to disasters.

Kirsch put his small team to work bringing order to a situation in which untrained foreign medical teams were treating people at random. Helping to establish a triage system for throngs of patients, he organized visiting medical teams into clear areas of responsibility, located and stored medical supplies, and defined work schedules so that doctors and nurses had ample time to rest.

He says that getting systems and processes in place to deliver medical aid and public health services to large numbers of people offers a greater benefit than focusing on injured individuals.

“As a person, your impact is small, but if you can improve a system, your impact can be large,” says Kirsch. “The old ‘teach a person to fish’ saying is doubly true in a disaster.”

Scholar of Disaster Medicine

As an associate professor at the schools of medicine, public health and engineering, Kirsch juggles teaching, writing and administrating along with his medical practice in the Emergency Department. He’s published dozens of papers and studies on public health issues and medical responses to disasters. He directs the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and serves on the leadership team for CEPAR. Additionally, he teaches a course on “austere medicine,” also known as wilderness medicine, which requires medical students to work in the field with little, if any, modern medical equipment or supplies and to learn skills critical for disaster medicine.

Much of his current research considers how to establish “smart systems” prior to natural or man-made disasters.

One project involves developing educational materials and training programs for staff at churches and other houses of worship—often the first places survivors seek help after a disaster. Another, examining structural damage to hospitals from earthquakes and hurricanes, seeks to identify weaknesses in their building designs as well as ways to improve those facilities’ emergency preparedness.

James Cobey, a disaster expert in Washington, D.C., says that Kirsch’s public health training helped him understand how to bring systemic order and relief to disaster scenes, while emergency medicine prepared him for treating mass casualties.

“I’m drawn to very challenging situations,” Kirsch says. “That’s where I feel like I do some of my best work.”

The key to staying sane and useful after disaster strikes, he notes, is to focus on the work at hand: making daily improvements in the lives of those hard hit by the calamity.

“The most rewarding thing you can do is relieve suffering and give people hope that better days are ahead,” he says.

—Mark Guidera

To see a video on the Johns Hopkins Go Team in Haiti, visit

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