Hospitals’ crucial work continues amid hurricane

Patients originally at hospitals in Panama City, Florida, woke up in other facilities Friday morning after Hurricane Michael made it impossible for some health care facilities to function fully.

Scott Campbell, CEO of Bay Medical Sacred Heart, said that he rode out the hurricane with the hospital’s staff and that the experience was “extremely frighting” and the damage significant, but the facility’s emergency plan worked.

Medical helicopters and a parade of ambulances left Bay Medical early Thursday with the urgent help of a US Health and Human Services Disaster Medical Assistance team.

About 3 a.m., staff members had to wake patients for transport to facilities that weren’t affected by the hurricane. Patients were sent to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola and St. Vincent’s HealthCare in Jacksonville and even as far as Providence Hospital in Mobile, Alabama.

The hospital’s front door was boarded up Friday morning, water service hadn’t been restored, and a handmade sign directed patients to the emergency room, which remains operational. Some of the buildings that didn’t house patients looked like doll houses with entire walls ripped off, littering the grass, leaving offices and auxiliary buildings open to the elements. Windows were shattered and destroyed.

However, Campbell said that a lot of the damage is not visible.

No one was injured at his hospital, he said, and no one died in the storm there, but the hurricane-force winds were so powerful that they lifted the roof on the tower where most of the patients were, and water poured into the facility. The windows are all double-paned, but several exterior panes broke, also allowing water into the building.

Staffers scrambled to move some of those patients into the hallways for their safety. The third floor of the maternity care unit had to be evacuated to another level because of the flooding.

“It was scary, but we had a plan in place,” said Dr. Amir Haghighat, an interventional cardiologist with the Cardiovascular Institute of Northwest Florida who works at Bay Medical. He and his team arrived at the hospital the day before the hurricane made landfall and slept in the hospital to be ready for what would happen.

“It was a very scary few hours of howling winds, windows blowing in, crashing roofs, ceilings collapsing, but patients being cared for throughout all of it.”

Medical teams like Haghighat’s had to do the tricky work of moving patients whose lives depended on ventilators.

Having multiple teams and multiple layers of help worked, he said, so that when one section of the hospital ran out of power, they were able to help their patients breathe, hand-pumping air until the patients could be taken to the next section of the hospital that had adequate generator power.

“These are patients that I’ve [cared for] for a long time, and there was a time that I worried that the whole structure could collapse,” Haghighat said.

This was not his first hurricane, either. Haghighat worked at St. Tammany Parish Hospital in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, but he says Michael was “scarier,” in part perhaps because his spouse, children and puppy were also at the hospital along with the patients.

About 1,500 people, including doctors, nurses and other critical staff members, along with patients and staffers’ families, rode out the storm at the hospital.

“I have to admit there was a time when I wasn’t sure [how we’d make it], but I have to tell you, everyone had their game face on and continued to work throughout it,” Haghighat said.

Because staffers acted quickly, not one of the patients — even the critical cardiology/pulmonary ones — had their care interrupted due to the hurricane, Campbell said.

Workers at the Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center in Panama City started evacuating their most critical patients on Monday. Hospital Corporation of America, which operates the facility, had to find beds for 130 in neighboring hospitals that weren’t affected by the storm, according to Ed Fishbough, HCA’s assistant vice president of communications. Patients were moved by ambulance and helicopter.

“Until we can be certain of stable public power, water and sewage systems, our patients will be safest in our neighboring hospitals,” the hospital said in a statement. “At the same time, we know our community will need our ER and we are going to do everything possible to keep our ER open and effectively treating and stabilizing patients.”

The hospital has a team of 200 working at its enterprise emergency operations center in Nashville to provide support to hospitals affected by the hurricane.

Other facilities like the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, which has 950 residents and 650 employees, sheltered in place during the storm, according to David Frady, communications director for the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Frady said Thursday that the hospital had generators and never lost power. Drinking water was delivered via helicopter “in an abundance of caution” when a large tree fell and caused an underground water line to break, cutting the facility’s fresh water supply.

Hospitals are required by law drill for any disaster, and they must make sure they have extra staff, supplies, fuel and contingency plans.