Doctor Faces Different Challenges on Hurricane Ian Rescue Team
One in an ongoing series
It isn’t often that Ryan Overberger, DO, can use his undergraduate civil engineering degree in his practice of emergency medicine.
Most of the time, Dr. Overberger treats sick or wounded individuals in his job as an emergency physician at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.
But his engineering knowledge does come in handy when he’s doing search and rescue as the doctor on a Federal Emergency Management Agency team, most recently during Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida.
“If I’m crawling into a structure that’s damaged, I may know where it might be safe,” he says. “If something starts to move, I can figure out where it’s safe, if a wall is weight-bearing, where I’m going to seek shelter, what’s the best way to get out. It’s little insights like that.”
Dr. Overberger has been on Pennsylvania’s FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team, one of 28 across the country, since 2015.
“When I found out there were teams that specialized in structural collapse – looking how structures fall down and where a person might survive – and I can combine my knowledge of medicine, it’s everything I’m interested in,” he says.
‘The Worst I’ve Ever Seen’
Dr. Overberger, who’s also a member of the Montgomery County Urban Search and Rescue Team, has been deployed four times through FEMA – to Hurricanes Florence and Dorian, the collapse of the Surfside condominium in Florida, and Hurricane Ian in September.
While the sudden death wrought by the gut-wrenching condo collapse seems to have emotionally affected him the most – “we found toys and coffee mugs and photo albums in the rubble” – Hurricane Ian was by far “the worst I’ve ever seen,” he says.
“Just the scale of devastation is difficult to comprehend,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Foundations with no buildings, trucks stacked on cars, whole houses in the middle of the street.”
Dr. Overberger’s team of 45 people, including one physician (him) and two paramedics, set up base camp at Jet Blue stadium, a minor league ball park. They pitched five large tents in which to sleep, eat and work, and traveled in a caravan of 12 vehicles to their search sites every day.
On these missions, they bring in their own food, water and supplies, so they don’t use anything that survivors might need. “We are completely self-sufficient,” he says.
“For this hurricane, we did mostly searching and humanitarian work,” Dr. Overberger says. “A lot of it was knocking on every door and looking in windows and vehicles and boats for survivors.”
They discovered an elderly couple in their storm-ravaged house and a man who had sheltered in his boat, but most of the original search and rescue was done by Florida rescuers before Dr. Overberger’s team arrived from South Carolina, where they’d been originally deployed.
From Engineering to the ER
So how did a would-be engineer get into emergency medicine? Engineering is as precise as a protractor and as safe as a slide rule; emergency medicine is as precarious as human nature.
“I grew up liking to take things apart and put them back together,” and planned on a career creating buildings, Dr. Overberger says. “I never thought about medicine at all.”
But after college, when he was undecided between graduate school and getting a job, he worked on the ski patrol and as an EMT on a dirt bike track in the Poconos.
“I realized I like the medical stuff,” he says. He completed pre-med college classes and went to medical school.
Dr. Overberger particularly likes practicing medicine “in austere environments” with little but his self-reliance to sustain him: no patients on gurneys, no other docs or nurses, no bright lights, nothing but “the medical equipment you can carry with you.”
“I like to solve difficult challenges with limited resources,” he says.
Dr. Overberger insists, however, that he’s not an adrenalin-seeking risk-taker, though his choice of career and hobbies – skiing and rock-climbing – suggest the contrary.
“I really do not like taking risks,” he says. “I do a lot of things that look like they’re high risk – like rock climbing. But I’m so obsessively safe, I have no concerns because I’ve double and triple checked everything. I worry more about driving a car.”
The FEMA teams also are “extraordinarily safety conscious,” he says. “We do things that are dangerous in a way that mitigates as much of the risk as possible.”
It also helps when he can also call on his engineering skills.
The only worrisome thing about being deployed, he says, is “missing my wife and three children.”