In the Face of the Storm

Stephen Morris, M.D., MPH


Hurricanes have a way of upending the best-laid plans. Alumnus Stephen Morris, M.D., ’05, MPH, was about to leave for a family vacation in Hawaii when a series of powerful storms began churning across the Atlantic. He still boarded a plane, but not to go on holiday. Instead, Morris flew into the destructive wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria to care for the sick and injured.

On this assignment, Morris’ first stop was Houston, Texas. Then he travelled to four cities in Puerto Rico, including San Juan and Fajardo. Working between 12- and 16-hour days, Morris treated a variety of patients, from those suffering hurricane-related injuries like wounds and lacerations to those with illnesses or chronic conditions.

“A lot of people couldn’t access their regular medications or were suffering from common infectious diseases from living in crowded shelters,” says Morris.

Morris, an assistant professor in UW Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine, an attending physician at Harborview Medical Center and UW Medical Center, and a member of the UW School of Medicine Leadership Council, is part of a 50-member Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT). Deployed by the federal government, DMATs set up portable field hospitals to provide medical care when disaster strikes.

Local healthcare systems often take a triple hit when a catastrophe like a hurricane happens; increased patient volumes, facility damage and staff shortages can easily overwhelm a hospital’s ability to care for patients. “DMAT teams like ours pitch in while healthcare systems get back on their feet,” say Morris.

Morris has served on disaster relief and international development teams all over the world, including Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa, and he’s fascinated by his patient’s stories — and their resilience.

“In Houston, one gentleman told me how he swam from the second floor of his home through several blocks of floodwater just to make it to dry land,” says Morris. “And I treated a lot of elderly folks who survived in flooded homes for days until someone thought to rescue them.”

From a young age, Morris felt drawn to helping vulnerable people. His very first job was as a lifeguard, and he spent the early part of his career as an EMT and firefighter. “Ultimately, I wanted a vocation where I could help people through the difficult portions of their lives, something where I could work with my hands and also be intellectually stimulated,” says Morris. “Emergency medicine and public health were the perfect combination.”

There’s no telling where Morris’ disaster relief work will take him next. He is on call four times a year for deployments that last approximately two weeks.

“I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the support of my family and my colleagues at UW Medicine, who step up to cover my shifts while I’m gone. It takes a lot of people making sacrifices, not just those on DMAT, to do this work,” says Morris.