Merilee Cole

Merilee Cole is a registered nurse who works in the neonatal intensive care unit at Billings Clinic. She traveled to Houston on Thursday to help with the flood relief. 

Contributed by Merilee Cole

By the time the rain from Hurricane Harvey stopped earlier this week, many of the doctors and nurses at the Woman's Hospital of Texas had worked three or four straight days without leaving the medical center. 

They were eager to see their families and check on their homes. So when a bus full of nurses and other medical professionals pulled up at the hospital on Friday to relieve hospital staff, emotions ran high. 

"They clapped and cried when we walked in," said Merilee Cole, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse from Billings Clinic who traveled down to Houston on Thursday to help in the relief effort. 

Cole, a Billings resident, arrived in Houston on Friday. She decided to make her way down after seeing a post on Facebook on Wednesday.

The Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses had put out the call, saying that Houston-area hospitals "are in critical need of NICU registered nurses to help provide relief to those who have been working countless hours since Hurricane Harvey made landfall."

"They were in crisis," Cole said. "So I responded."

Last year, Cole traveled to Africa as part of a medical mission to help impoverished people get access to critical health care. That factored into her decision to leave Billings and head to Houston. 

"I thought, 'If I can handle Africa, I can handle this,'" she said. 

And that was it; 24 hours after seeing the Facebook post, Cole was on a plane south. The other nurses in her department volunteered to cover Cole's shifts in the NICU so that she could go. 

Cole flew to Atlanta first, arriving Thursday. The city was being used as the staging ground for the the nurses called in by the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. 

In all, more than 150 registered nurses showed up. They traveled by bus to Houston on Friday and spent the day getting security cards and identification badges and sitting through orientation. 

Earlier in the week, before the floodwaters had begun to recede, a handful of nurses had been flown in by Black Hawk helicopter. 

Driving into the city on Friday, Cole saw firsthand the devastation from the storm.

"You can definitely see where the water was," she said.

Detritus from the flood and garbage are strewn everywhere, she said. All around, damaged buildings show the high-water marks from the massive rainfall.

Cole will be in Houston for the next two weeks, spending nearly the whole time working. When she's not working, she'll sleep at the hospital, which has converted conference rooms and other office space into makeshift living quarters with cots. 

It'll be taxing, but she's thankful she's there and able to help. The appreciation shown by the nurses at Woman's Hospital of Texas has been nearly overwhelming. 

"It's emotional for everybody," she said. 

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Health care reporter for the Billings Gazette.