How Harvey changed my life: Catastrophic flood reshapes a hygienist's vision about career

March 21, 2018
Mary Heard, RDH, s survivor of Hurricane Harvey, reflects on how storm influenced her career as a dental hygienist.  
Rainfall from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 flooded author's home.

By Mary Heard, RDH

I have been in the dental field for 30 years, starting my hygiene career in 2004. That can seem like a million years ago! Like other hygienists, I was feeling burned out. I was searching for something else to do. I tried to go back to school, tried other job ideas—all without success. I prayed to God. I asked Him to remove me from dental hygiene. I was suffering from headaches, back problems, and eye problems.

Harvey the Hurricane

On Friday, August 25, 2017, at exactly 12 pm, it began to rain as Hurricane Harvey moved ashore. We had been watching the storm approach, and I decided to take that day off. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and the last thing I wanted was to be stranded at work. Mary’s Creek, which is a long creek that flows into a much larger creek, Clear Creek, was right outside my operatory window. Our office flooded once before. I figured the carpet might get wet. Boy, was my figuring off. The final measurement inside the office was four feet. I don’t think anyone expected the magnitude of this storm and that it would hang around for four days.

We have lived in in League City, Texas, since 2006, and our home has never been affected by flooding. Even though our neighborhood is not in a flood zone, we purchased flood insurance when we bought the house. Since this hurricane, I have discovered most areas are not in a flood zone. With the rapid building of homes and other structures in our area, our neighborhood has become lower than others in the vicinity. Still, we did not think our home would flood. As a result, we did not prepare, and we should have. But then again, with this type of storm, even being prepared wouldn’t have been enough.

Water enters the Heard home.

Hurricane Harvey was a very different storm. It was predicted that it would stay stationary for days, and it did. As for us, we received the “dirty side.” That was all of the rain and wind of the storm, and for 4 1/2 days it rained.

On Friday night, we realized our home was going to flood. We began throwing items on the bed and putting things upstairs. We didn’t sleep till about 5:30 am Saturday. I woke up after about an hour and headed downstairs. The water was creeping in our home. Within a few hours, the water had invaded our entire house, and it was ankle deep.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t panic. How do you stop water? I informed my husband of the situation in the main level, and we began preparing to live upstairs for a while—my husband, our son, our four cats, two dogs, and me. Our daughter was in Alvin, Texas, a town about 20 minutes away visiting friends and was stranded there due to the high water around Houston. My father was visiting friends in Missouri, and he was not be able to return home for quite some time.

Our attention switched to what was going on outside and what was yet to come. Upon inspection, three of the family’s vehicles were flooded. Weather reports said it was going to continue raining, so we decided to leave. We realized our only way out was with my husband’s truck. If we stayed, it was likely his truck would have flooded as well, even with a six-inch lift. So, we packed up what we needed and went to a friend’s house, who ironically lived in an adjoining neighborhood that didn’t flood.

About a week later, we were able to drive to our house. It was Thursday, and that is when the demolition of our damaged house began. We removed walls, insulation, furniture and everything else that had been touched by flood water. The people who came out to us were absolutely amazing. Friends and strangers helped us. What helped me get through this was I knew I wasn’t alone. All of my neighbors were going through the same thing.

The demolition was likely one of the easiest parts. At least, we had some control over that process. Even though I had made all necessary phone calls early—mortgage company, insurance company, car lenders, FEMA, etc.—it still took a long time to get anything accomplished. The paperwork was never ending, the waiting was frustrating, and the need to be constantly checking with the various companies were doing their jobs was a full-time job in and of itself. Most of the time the companies don’t call you for information, they just wait for you to follow-up.

Fortunately, we were able to contact a construction company, and we set a start date for rebuilding. We used money donated from a GoFundMe account, money we had saved, and donated money from our church to begin. During the process of rebuilding, we were blessed because we have a large camper, which is now parked in our driveway. I always thought we would camp in it, not live in it. At times the camper is depressing, but life reminds me that others have it worse, and I am to be grateful for what I have.

Mary Heard, RDH

New dental adventures

As I anticipated, my long-time dental office flooded. My boss was able to find an office that allowed us to use their space for two days a week. I was excited! However, working two days per week, instead of 4 1/2, was going take toll on my paycheck, so I ventured out to find a part-time job. This is where my eyes were opened.

I was hired as a caregiver for those who recently had surgery or just needed help due to some ailment or age. However, I had a feeling that job wasn’t right for me. I had such a sick feeling in my gut, so I went with my feelings and quit before I even got started. I realized then, “I am not a caregiver. I am a hygienist.”

My career is dental hygiene, and there is more to dental hygiene than being in a dental office. Hurricane Harvey took away my full-time position and made it a two-days-a-week job. Trying to find employment away from dental hygiene was not the answer. God has a purpose for me and for all of us. He will close doors and open them whether we like them or not. I am making plans to do seminars to teach the public about oral care and how important it is for overall health. There is a lack of education that stresses the importance of oral care. I see this with almost every patient I treat see in my dental office. In the public eye (i.e. commercials, articles, billboards, etc.), the focus on oral care just isn’t there. I want to be the one who closes this gap and puts dental above medical importance, because the mouth is the gateway to the body. As a dental hygienist I know if we keep the mouth healthy, the rest of the body will stay healthy as well. I am looking forward to getting this information out to the public. I am excited to be able to take things a step further than education. As an Oral Care Specialist with the HyLife Oral Health Alliance, I can actually help those who cannot maintain their own oral health. With educating and providing a service, I know I will make an impact on many lives.

As I watched the water rise, tore down and rebuilt my house, and navigated the difficulties of getting back to normal, I thought at times my world would end. And now I am thankful Harvey came into my life. God allowed me to experience what others go through when they are in uncharted situations. I have learned that when lives are turned upside down by life’s situations people need help. I now can be that help, because I have lived through a disaster.

I thank God for not answering my prayers to be something other than a dental hygienist. During this experience, I learned that what I really want is another purpose within the field of dental hygiene. For that, I am forever thankful. I am looking forward to making a difference in the world of dental health in a new way.