After three major storms in just over a year, southeastern Connecticut's hospitals have had plenty of opportunities to test their emergency response preparations and execution.
But Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London and The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich are still working on ways to improve planning for and dealing with the next extreme weather event. Guided by debriefing sessions with staff at both hospitals since Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29, emergency managers are honing in on several specific improvements they plan to make.
"One of the lessons we continue to learn is that it really isn't just about the storm itself, it's the aftermath that can be really taxing on health care institutions," Shawn Mawhiney, spokesman for Backus, said. "The key is planning and preparation beforehand."
Ron Kersey, emergency management coordinator at L&M, said the hospital was very busy both during and after the storm. The emergency departments at both the main hospital and at Pequot Health Center in Groton treated an influx of patients with chronic conditions that flared up due to the anxiety and stress of the storm and having to evacuate from their homes, he said. Portions of New London, Groton, Mystic, Stonington, East Lyme and Old Lyme were evacuated.
After the storm, patients came to both hospital's emergency departments with cleanup-related injuries and carbon monoxide poisoning from unsafe generator use. The hospitals also saw an influx of local residents who lost power but needed electricity to run their breathing machines or other medical equipment.
Kersey said that in some of those cases, the patients didn't realize they could have gone to one of the region's emergency shelters. There, they would have been able to plug in their machines, and medical volunteers and nurses from the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut would have been on hand to check on them, he said.
"In the future, we need to help the special needs community know that they can plug their oxygen machines or other medical devices in at the shelters, and that the Medical Reserve Corps is there," he said. "We did work with at least a dozen people to get them to go to a more appropriate setting."
Kersey said he hopes to work with local emergency management officials to identify long-term care facilities that could take people with specials needs during an emergency and then let patients know those facilities are available.
Some hospital patients had to be discharged after the storm to these facilities, Kersey said, because they couldn't be sent to a home without power. They kept some patients a few days past when they could have been discharged.
"We were at peak census by the end of that week," he said.
Mawhiney said that at Backus, one issue was finding rides for discharged patients after the storm. Cabs weren't running, and family members couldn't get to the hospital. In several cases, American Ambulance ended up providing rides home, he said.
One way of addressing the issues of those with special medical needs is to ask local physicians to talk to their patients about emergency planning and knowing where the local shelters are, said Joe Sastre, emergency management director for Groton. The shelter at the Robert E. Fitch Senior High School housed several local residents who needed the generator power there for their medical devices, but others apparently went to the emergency department unnecessarily.
"You don't want to be filling up the hospital with people who only need a place to plug in," he said.
Physicians also may want to advise patients who depend on oxygen machines to get backup systems that can run on battery power, he said.
Reid Burdick, emergency management director for New London, believes all the city's special needs population went to the appropriate places during and after the storm, whether it was the shelter or the hospital.
"If people have medical needs, they probably do need to go to the hospital," he said. "Some people can go to the shelter, if they can take their care provider with them. The hospital was busy and we were, too. Everybody was, but nobody fell through the cracks."
Both Backus and L&M ended up housing dozens of employees during the storm and its aftermath, turning conference rooms and offices into makeshift dormitories. Mawhiney said about 80 staff stayed over, and others who didn't have power at home could get hot showers at the hospital. There also were several employees who couldn't get to work due to downed trees or power lines near their homes.
During and after the storm, Mawhiney said, Backus posted several community service messages on Facebook and Twitter, using those social media sites as a means of educating the public about hazards such as CO poisoning.
At L&M, about 75 nurses and other staff slept on cots at the hospital during and after the storm, Kersey said. The hospital found a kennel willing to board their pets. For the future, he said, the hospital would like to set up its own shelter for staff pets as well as for their children or elderly parents who can't be home alone.
"Some people wanted to stay over but couldn't because of children or elderly parents," Kersey said. If the hospital had an emergency shelter for them as well as for staff pets, he said, "we would relieve them of that anxiety, and they'll be more focused on their jobs and taking care of patients."