Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Katrina stories, 5

Losing the hospital AC caused a lot more trouble than we thought it would.

The most obvious misery was the heat and humidity. I'm not sure exactly when the AC unit died, but by that morning, it was a nice 80 degrees inside the building. By noon, it hit about 90 degrees. The temperature inside that building fluctuated between about 80 and 90 for about 2-3 weeks. It took that long to get the AC fixed.

So normally, what happens when a hurricane hits is that everybody either leaves town, or holes up in their houses. Mayhem ensues for a day or so after the storm passes, but then the clean-up crews and maintenance people are out doing their thing, the power comes back on, and everything just pretty much goes back to normal. And of course there's always a building or two that get damaged, and the reporters will all be on the scene to sensationalize everything so we can ooh and ahh and be glad that it didn't happen to us.

That's what normally happens.

Of course Katrina was different because the levees didn't hold and everything flooded and just turned into a mess. And since everybody had evacuated, mechanics and maintenance personnel included, and because nobody was coming back to the mess anytime soon, it took a while to get the AC unit fixed.

Whatever. Big deal. We just dealt with it.

We stopped wearing our white coats, rolled up our scrub pants, and walked around the hospital looking like we were in the Amazon. Everybody had big sweat stains. Everybody's hair looked terrible. Everybody smelled a little bad. (Some worse than others.) The patients were miserable, we were miserable, and after a day or so, we all just stopped bitching about it and got on with what we needed to do.

However, a hospital is usually a cold place (in every sense of the word). When the temperature started to rise, condensation formed everywhere. And combined with the late-August humidity, the walls were literally dripping with water. And this water collected everywhere. And continued to do so for a good day and a half until the walls equalized with the ambient temperature.

Water + linoleum = bad

And as soon as we could mop up the water that would collect on the floor, more would form. Of course, condensation was forming on the floor as well, which just augmented the problem. It was absolutely ridiculous. I must've slipped and fallen on my butt about 50 times during those few days. We all had wet stains on our butts from wiping out on the slippery floor.

During this whole ordeal, one of our OR nurses started to complain of abdominal pain. This eventually developed into appendicitis. Which wouldn't have been a problem under "normal" hurricane circumstances because the hospital's backup generators are more than capable of producing enough electricity and we would just take him to the OR and operate on him. However, what we didn't realize was that with the AC out, not only was condensation forming on the walls and floor, but on the sterile surgical instruments as well, ruining their sterility.

As we were restirilizing the instruments, one of the backup generators died, immediately crippling the hospital. And with only one generator, there wasn't enough power. And even after shutting down every non-vital part of the hospital, there still wasn't enough power to run the OR room.

Trying to find another hospital that not only was open, but was staffed to perform an operation was like trying to find a purple unicorn. It took us 6 hours of phone calls to locate a hospital that could take care of him, and then another 3 hours to find an ambulance and qualified medics to transport him to the hospital 180 miles away.

Our difficulty stemmed from all the current resources being focused on rescuing patients from the downtown hospitals that were under flood waters and under attack. (Do you remember that? Looters were actually shooting at the helicopters and medical personnel trying to evacuate patients).

In the end, the OR nurse was taken care of, and the AC unit was fixed. It took about two days to get the hospital cooled down. And I remember the medical director saying, "I don't want anybody complaining about how cold it is in this building ever again."