In the News

Keeping Care on Track during the Blizzard of 2013

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By Mary Ann Couture, MS, RRT

February 19, 2013

Editor’s Note: AARC asked its members in the Northeast to let us know what they encountered during the recent snow storm, and this story was sent in by Mary Ann Couture, from Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. Mary Ann has been a member since 2004 and is also a member of the Adult Acute Care Section.

In the past two years we have experienced four weather emergencies here in Hartford, CT: two hurricanes and two snowstorms. The most recent came just a couple of weeks ago, when the Blizzard of 2013 blanketed the Connecticut River Valley with 30 to 40 inches of snow—much more than in the surrounding areas. Here, in the city, we got 28 inches alone.

Getting ready

With the storm expected to hit later in the day, three New England governors closed their state highways to everyone except essential employees early on Friday, Feb. 8. The storm hit hardest from 7 p.m. on Friday until the early morning on Saturday.

The hospital’s outdoor cafeteria courtyard was literally buried in snow after the blizzard.

At Hartford Hospital we have a weather emergency policy that asks employees to come in early and consider that they may be away from their families for more than their normal shift. The 12-hour night shift was able to arrive on Friday, but after that the roads rapidly deteriorated. The more vehicles drove on unplowed roads, the more the snow compacted. Soon there were four inches of packed icy snow on the roads. At that point, the roads became hazardous even to snow plows. Hartford plows were no match for the storm and were called in to rest by 11 p.m. We had reports that the Connecticut State trucks were also breaking down.

I arrived at 11 a.m. on Friday for my 3 p.m. shift in the respiratory care department, bringing a small suitcase with me in case I had to stay overnight as well as to have survival materials available for the road. The work was routine that evening for a Friday. The hospital had early discharges to reduce our average workload by 15%.

Since I have a truck that can navigate in a foot of snow, I attempted to drive home at 11 p.m. Within one block of the hospital, I saw several four wheel drive vehicles that were sitting at right angles into snow banks—one ambulance included—so I returned to the hospital to find a spot to sleep for the night.

With average travel time for a routine 15 minute drive taking about two hours, over 400 employees joined me in deciding to stay overnight. Employees were welcome to find a cot or stretcher. They could sleep in designated areas, but many found quiet exam rooms near their departments.

Everyone pitched in

The respiratory night shift coverage was adequate minus two staff members. One night shift employee ended up stranded in his car all night behind a broken down state plow. There were few ambulances making it to the emergency room, so workloads remained light in that department.

Multidisciplinary support came from dietary personnel who provided snacks all night and free breakfast in the morning. They provided free meals to the Hartford Public Works crew as well. In fact, on Saturday the hospital was the only place where law enforcement crews could get meals. The hospital plow crews assisted employees who got stuck in the snow as they were trying to make their way down the surrounding streets near the hospital

When morning came, the respiratory therapists who slept in the hospital were available to make up 25% of the day shift. Still, one person was able to drive in at 7 a.m. He told us that the highways were clear but exit ramps had two feet of snow to get through.

For many employees, this view outside one of the emergency exists was their first look at the extent of the snow.

I worked another day shift for coverage until some other people trickled in as allowed. The shifts were staggered as we flexed our schedules for the weekend. We did not receive a surge of patients until after the storm ended so workloads remained routine. After 28 hours, with a full shift sleep break, I returned home.

A ceremony not to be missed

One poignant event occurred just before 7 p.m. on Friday, with the storm raging around us. A family decided to donate a loved one’s organs. We hold a Donate Life Flag Ceremony at the front entrance to the hospital whenever an organ donation is made. An announcement is made on the intercom asking available staff to go outside and join the family for the event.

Many of us take a short break at this time to show our dedication to those families and our appreciation for their choice. So despite the weather, about 30 of us from all disciplines trudged outside to do this honorary service and offer our condolences. During the night of the storm some very lucky people were receiving the good news that an organ had been found for their loved ones.