BALTIMORE – Dr. Matthew Minson wears a big, water-proof watch with a numbered outer rim, same kind Navy Seals use. He’s tall, of strong build and speaks with a light Texas drawl. He is a mass casualty doctor with a “penchants for being where bad things happen.”
Minson stood on the smoking rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center towers after 9/11. He helped scour the piney woods of east Texas for debris after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. He was the lone doctor for hundreds of New Orleans residents trapped on an overpass after Hurricane Katrina struck.
He waves off requests for a juicy anecdote or two.
“I don’t really want to get into the specifics,” he said from behind his desk at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore, where he recently took the reins as the director of the department’s Office of Preparedness and Response, which opened in mid-February.
Flow charts covered the desk and office walls, clues to the kind of thinking that goes into planning for a catastrophe. The charts outline state departments and agencies that might play a role if something bad happens. They are maps to help him discern who in Maryland is in charge of providing food, water, energy, transportation, medical personnel and other essentials during a disaster.
“It is important that you have an understanding of what this means to the people who are out there in the trenches,” Minson said of the organizational charts. “When I look at a mass casualty event, I look at what I have in regards to resources and what the victims need, and I try to match them up.” As director of the office he will help decide how to best spend federal money provided to Maryland to prepare for an emergency and will coordinate the medical component of the state’s response to future disasters here or in other states.
A desire to fix “bad things” originally attracted Minson, now 45, to medicine when he was a child growing up in Texas.
“Strangely enough I owe it to Sophia Loren and a bunch of lepers that I went into medicine,” he said.
As he recalls, when he was 5-years-old, he was upset by a scene in the 1962 movie “El Cid” – staring Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston – in which people threw stones at a group of lepers. To comfort him, Minson’s mother suggested he become a doctor and help lepers.
“That struck me as a good solution,” he said.
When he was old enough, he trained to become an emergency medical technician and later studied medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He eventually worked his way up to a position as the emergency room director at a Houston hospital.
His transition from emergency room doctor to disaster doctor began when a paramedic told him about Texas Task Force 1, an urban search and rescue team based in College Station, Texas.
“Urban search and rescue teams go to the farthest, most interior point of a disaster,” Minson said. “They are your Marines, hitting the beach first.”
He thought it “sounded like a lot of fun.” He signed up for training, not knowing he would later apply what he learned in the aftermath of some of the worst disasters to ever strike the United States.
He trained in a 52-acre catastrophe laboratory called Disaster City, a collection of mock disaster sites that includes a collapsed strip mall, a half-buried airplane and a jumble of overturned train cars meant to simulate a derailment.
At Disaster City, Minson became certified for skills that he had never imagined he would need back in medical school.
He learned to extract people from collapsed structures and to work safely around the toxic chemicals that often contaminate disaster sites. He acquired a knack for “austere care,” a euphemism doctors use for practicing medicine in extreme situations where medical facilities and supplies are scarce or non-existent.
“I think it makes you a better doctor overall, or it did for me anyway,” he said.
Jeff Saunders, a member Texas Task Force 1 who worked with Minson in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, categorizes certain people on the team as “race horses.”
“They are Type A, goal oriented and want to see good things happen,” Saunders said. “I would certainly put Matt in that race horse category.”
In 2001, Minson deployed with the team after Tropical Storm Allison flooded Houston.
Five weeks later, the team was called to New York after the September 11 terrorist attacks. As the team’s lead doctor, Minson cared for the other team members and search dogs combing through the rubble for survivors.
In a picture taken at ground zero on the team’s Web site, Minson slumps on a bench during a break. He is surrounded by piles of rubble and yellow caution tape. The ground under his feet is charred black.
That ordeal, his emergency training and his medical management experience left him “oddly qualified” in December 2002 to take over the as the medical director of emergency medical services for Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston and is the third most populous county in the country.
Two months after he took the job, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, scattering debris over a rural region about 100 miles northeast of Harris County. Minson again deployed with Texas Task Force 1 to help clean up the debris.
Disaster, he realized, can strike anywhere.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated that a small, rural county in east Texas would have to contend with a spaceship landing on it,” he said. “Even though you might not be in the largest, most densely populated metropolitan area, you may have to deal with a situation that could be quite overwhelming.”
The onslaught of search and rescue teams, hazardous materials handlers and government agencies pushed the region’s infrastructure to its limits, giving Minson a small taste of the complete infrastructure collapse he would experience in New Orleans three years later.
For nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck last August, Texas Task Force 1 searched the city by boat, rescuing people trapped in buildings and rooftops by the flood waters.
Minson set up a triage center in one of the city’s suburbs on an elevated freeway ramp that the flood waters had turned into an island. At one point he was the only doctor for about 500 people marooned on the ramp, according to Saunders who also deployed with the team.
“There was every imaginable illness. There were decease victims,” Saunders said. “He had his hands full, but I think he handled it admirably.”
Saunders also tells of how Minson helped rescue an 85-year-old woman who had been trapped in her house in water up to her chest for several days. To keep her head above water she stood on a piece of furniture and held on to a floating couch for balance.
Minson rushed to the scene by flat-bottom boat to care for the woman, who was exhausted and dehydrated. They were both lifted in a basket from the boat into a helicopter and flown to safety. It took only 28 minutes from the time Minson was called to the time he and the woman were in helicopter.
“Which is pretty darn phenomenal,” Saunders said. “Nobody else could have done that.”
Saunders attributes much of the speed of that rescue to systems Minson helped develop by weaving together his on-the-ground experience with the big-picture organizational skills he learned in hospitals and while running Harris County’s emergency medical services.
“You are lucky to have him,” he said of Minson’s move to Maryland.
In addition to his new responsibilities in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Minson will remain on call with Texas Task Force 1. If another major catastrophe strikes he will probably have to leave his wife, Kelly, and their house in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore to go somewhere where bad things are happening. “She watches the news and sees things and it’s tough,” he said. “But she understands we do this for a good reason. When these things go down, somebody is in trouble and it’s just not an option not to help.”