El Paso hasn’t had an easy year, to put it lightly. But the city has remained resilient as El Pasoans reflect on what has happened and prepare for what’s to come.
There are organizations in the region that take that preparedness to the next level. The Border Regional Advisory Council, or BorderRAC, has a mission to keep the area’s medical service providers in constant contact with each other to be ready for disaster at all times.
“We try to make sure we’re really looking at the ‘what if,’ said Wanda Helgesen, executive director of the BorderRAC. “Day to day, that’s our job: What if this happens?”
Helgesen has been with the BorderRAC for 16 years, she said. She started her career as a nurse at Providence hospital and worked up to managerial positions before joining the BorderRAC.
As executive director, Helgesen oversees the council, which includes representatives from the region’s hospitals and urgent care clinics, as well as emergency medical services, or EMS, and medical transport providers.
The BorderRAC also helps coordinate the distribution of supplies and labor during statewide emergencies, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The group coordinates drills and large scale exercises for hospitals to prepare for traumatic events like shootings and evacuations.
Helgesen, a graduate of Andress High School in Northeast El Paso, received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at El Paso.
She spent an hour talking to El Paso Inc. about the BorderRAC’s work, the region’s disaster preparedness challenges and what she enjoys about the borderland.
Q: What does the BorderRAC do, and what is your role in the organization?
It’s one of 22 regional advisory councils recognized by the Department of State Health Services. The RACs were originally created to develop regional trauma systems, back in 1989. Over time, they’ve developed and morphed into much more than just trauma. We’re all 501(c) (3)s and our goal is to unite the otherwise competing medical providers to the best interests of our counties.
We have groups that work on different aspects of time-sensitive emergencies. We’re a coalition of hospital and EMS providers that come together and talk about trauma care, stroke, heart attacks. Now we have groups that work on neonatal ICU issues and maternal issues. We deal with anything that has to do with emergency health care.
I’m a nurse by trade. I learned to do new and different things since I came to the BorderRAC. We’re grant driven, so I’ve had to learn a lot about applying for and receiving and meeting monitoring requirements of grants. But more than that operational side, it’s really working with all the different participants on different issues large and small.
Q: How has the group’s role changed, or remained the same, during this rough year?
One of the things we do as part of our disaster preparedness is we look at the types of things we might have to address, and we try to make sure we have good open discussions ahead of time to do our best to prepare for those things.
Not quite a year before the Aug. 3 shooting, we participated in a huge regional exercise that happened to be an active-shooter exercise. We had already reviewed a number of situations based on the Las Vegas shooting. We had group sessions with our hospital emergency management coordinators, with trauma teams, separately with trauma surgeons, to look at all the bits and pieces of what we learned from Vegas.
So when Aug. 3 came, we had a communications system we use with hospitals every day to communicate different car crashes and those sorts of things. We put out the first notification that something was happening, and we were shortly able to send a second notice, more information and anticipated patients.
Because we exercise that all the time, the hospitals were able to call in their trauma team, and we were able to efficiently distribute those patients quickly, and the trauma teams were able to respond to that. We were able to utilize our tracking to help ID which patients are where, so we could help our reunification team connect families back together.
It was a long week for us and our hospital and EMS partners. We immediately began gathering information from them on what worked really well, where we need to change or dial things up for the next time.
Then we came around to early March, where we have different things happening. And because of the preparedness and discussions we’ve had in the past, we had a stockpile of PPE (personal protective equipment) in our warehouse that we were able to begin distributing as their individual vendor flow began to reduce.
We began collecting information about the hospitals’ daily bed status, the daily patient population that are COVID-related. We monitor that every single day with the hospitals, lots of discussion on what we need to be doing and involved in that system.
BorderRAC is responsible for PPE distribution to hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care centers. We’ve distributed to law enforcement and many groups that have needed that. We monitor that surge in the hospitals so we know every day where we are as far as that status goes.
We’re the only drive-thru center that collects specimens for four different laboratories. We participated in, looking forward, if we needed fatality management, working with local funeral homes, local medical examiner and made sure we had good planning.
We’re really trying to wrap our arms around all aspects for which we can be of assistance.
Q: What does the Emergency Medical Task Force Region 9, or EMTF-9, do?
The EMTF was formed after we realized that the state needed a formal way to share manpower and assets between regions when we have statewide disasters. The EMTF originally had ambulance strike teams, RN strike teams and a mobile medical hospital.
In some of the hurricanes, for example, we evacuated nursing homes or small hospitals that were structurally fine, and it was probably safer to leave individuals there, but their staff just couldn’t work anymore. We can send teams of RNs, an ICU team, and they can go and work with that staff and force multiply. It allows them to get rest and care for patients in that facility.
An ambulance bus carries 20 stretchered patients. That allows us to respond to large events, say, a bus crash. We’ve had a number of crashes where we’ve sent the ambulance bus to move a large number of patients back to the city.
Our mobile medical unit is a 53-foot NASCAR double-decker trailer that serves as the command portion. We have trailers that carry inflatable tents that connect to that, and we deploy that every year to the Bataan death march, which serves as an exercise for a mass-casualty event and lets us really practice that.
It’s been a very successful grouping for the state of Texas. The EMTFs were originally created in 2008, and we’ve built those over the last 10 years, increasing the number of agencies participating.
I do lectures for the UTEP school of nursing every year on trauma and disaster preparedness. I always tell them it’s not if, it’s when. Then you realize how important all this teamwork is before this happens.
Q: What are some of the challenges unique to our region?
We are very fortunate. Part of it I think is because we’re out here by ourselves. I’ve heard us referred to as an urban island. We could probably get EMS assistance from Los Angeles before we can get it from Houston. Because of that, I think we pay particular attention when we’re having our meetings and talking at preparedness.
We’re very fortunate that our hospitals understand that when they come to meetings, they take their home hat off and they put on the team hat. It’s up to us to make sure we’re coordinating well.
On game day, our groups are all in. It was absolutely that way on Aug. 3, and it’s been that way for the last three months as we’ve worked through the pandemic.
Q: Are there any areas the BorderRAC doesn’t work in?
I think, with anything, if there are opportunities or gaps that we have, we try to reach out and resolve those, or potentially do that. That’s what leads us to work with law enforcement, sheriff’s and local police departments, federal agencies.
We work well with our local health department.
I’m sure there are areas we don’t typically deal with but when it happens we deal with it. We try to bring the knowledge we have to different areas.
The regional advisory councils, we’re looked on as good coordinating bodies. We’re able to bring a lot of people together to respond to different things. We have good day-to-day connections with people, like with the county medical society. We’re working with them to distribute PPE to medical offices.
Or like in the pandemic, if we needed to open an off-site, we would work with the medical society to get physicians to volunteer and assist in those areas. There are so many different spokes to the wheel, and we’re able to get with those individuals.
Q: About you: How long have you been executive director?
I’ve now been with BorderRAC for about 16 years. My clinical background was in ICU and critical care. Over time, I had responsibility for ICU, CCU, telemetry. I was involved from the hospital perspective in the RAC, then transitioned over as executive director. It lets me work with all the hospitals, not just one. It’s been a real education for me.
Q: How did you get into this line of work, and what do you like about it?
My mother was a receptionist at a physician’s office when I was little. I had always been around the nurses. I got my bachelor’s at UTEP, worked at Providence and over time moved into management. I also got my master’s from UTEP. The rest is, as they say, history. I worked there for just over 20 years, then transitioned to BorderRAC.
I was born in Virginia and came here. My dad was in the national guard. He had come out to McGregor several times for training. They liked it, and they moved out here with no jobs. We’ve been here ever since. We do still have some family in Virginia, which we see periodically.
Q: What have you been up to in your free time?
I usually hang out with my husband, David. We do not take enough time off. We’d like to travel more. We used to be avid dancers but do that less and less these days. I like to read. We exercise some. Workaholic, that’s not a good badge to wear. I try not to role model that for the staff.
Since March we’ve kind of been at home. We’re big fans of Como’s and Leo’s. When we go out, it’s usually to those places, and we try to meet some friends or family there.
We have a park around our neighborhood we’ll go to. We do have a cabin in Cloudcroft which we do not get to enough. We try to get up there to unwind.
Around Christmas, for some fluke, we decided to buy a puzzle. Now I try to spend 15 or 20 minutes every night working at that puzzle.