From the Field: Lending a Hand After Hurricane Laura



Elizabeth “Tess” Helfrich, a biology and history senior at The University of Texas at Dallas, is no stranger to lending a hand during natural disasters and medical emergencies.
A certified emergency medical technician who serves with the University Emergency Medical Response team, Helfrich also is a rescue diver and volunteers with Texas Search and Rescue, a first responder organization that helps with ground search, floodwater rescue and dive-team operations.
She didn’t hesitate to volunteer when Category 4 Hurricane Laura hit the coast of Louisiana on Aug. 27 and crossed into Texas. Helfrich was quickly deployed with the American Red Cross North Texas Region to help as a medic volunteer.
“We are working with disaster relief services, treating and referring people to get the help they need. I’ve been mostly working outside of Houston, but we’ve been moving around a lot, helping in Louisiana and even Central and North Texas, where people have been evacuated to,” Helfrich said.
Besides supporting emergency lodging for those affected by the hurricane, Red Cross volunteers as of early September have served more than 127,000 meals and snacks and distributed nearly 70,000 relief items and cleaning supplies along the Gulf Coast. Volunteers have connected with more than 5,000 people who have medical or disability needs or need emotional and spiritual support.

“There’s always something to do as an EMT during COVID.”
– Elizabeth “Tess” Helfrich, a biology and history senior

It’s been a busy summer for Helfrich, who served through July as a health care volunteer with the Red Cross in her home state of Michigan. Her chapter worked to help residents affected by late spring flooding in Midland and Saginaw that damaged homes and property, destroyed a power dam and forced more than 10,000 people to evacuate.
“We were sheltering 10,000 people during COVID, which was completely crazy. We used noncongregate sheltering in hotels, which is so much safer right now than lining people up on cots in an arena,” Helfrich said.
Helfrich was available to help with that disaster because COVID-19 had interrupted a study-abroad experience made possible by a Boren Scholarship. She was evacuated in March from Amman, Jordan, where she had been studying Arabic.
“I had a good seven or eight months there. I felt really lucky for the time I had,” Helfrich said.
She would like to return to that part of the world eventually. Helfrich has taken the Medical College Admission Test and hopes to work in emergency medicine. She expects that her double major at UT Dallas will come in handy when she works overseas.
“I’ve been fortunate to have two completely different fields of study here at UT Dallas. Working transnationally, history plays a large role in understanding current events and critically evaluating medicine as a social institution,” Helfrich said.
Before attending medical school, Helfrich wants to take a gap year and possibly earn a master’s degree in humanitarianism or global health. She also said that working with an organization like the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a certain appeal.
“There’s always something to do as an EMT during COVID,” Helfrich said.
–Robin Russell