Ice storm creates issues for hospital

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The ice storm impacted everyone in northern Arkansas. No one seemed to be spared from the icicles, cold and falling limbs and power lines. Even hospitals, which are considered to be safe havens in emergencies, had their share of trouble during the ice storm. Patients who were hurt or ill and couldn't get to their family physician because of icy roads had a long wait at the hospital.

Fulton County Hospital CEO Angela Richmond said the hospital had an average of about 40 patients a day from Jan. 28 to Feb. 4. However, according to the Arkansas Department of Health, the hospital is allowed to have only 25 patients at a time. Richmond said she talked with the ADH and told them their situation. She said ADH has waived their patient quota for the time being. When the situation in Fulton County improves, ADH will go back to holding the hospital to its original quota of patients.

Neighboring hospitals couldn't take any additional patients, Richmond said. "Baxter (Regional Medical Center) had called in and said they could not take any more transfers over there because of their situation," Richmond said. "White River (Medical Center), we couldn't get to them. So, actually there was no where to send a patient. The ambulance couldn't travel because of the roads and Air Evac couldn't get here because of the weather. We just had to take care of all the patients who presented themselves here because there was no way to transfer them."

Richmond said the hospital opened the overflow room, pre-op room, recovery room and the ER to make space for the added patients.

The hospital routinely keeps one doctor in the ER and all the nurses help the doctor. Their routine was the same during the ice storm.

Richmond said Dr. Jeff Summerhill was able to come in from Little Rock early on Tuesday before the storm made roads too hazardous. Doctors David Kauffman, Jim Bozeman and Griffin Arnold were also able to take over the ER during the week.

Besides having an overload of patients, Richmond said the hospital had to deal with power outages and water coming through the roof because of the storm.

Richmond said the hospital had two large generators powering the building when there was no electricity. One generator was old and attached to the older part of the hospital and the other generator was new and attached to the new section.

"There were intermittent problems with the new one," Richmond said. She said Billy Crawford, an electrician from Thayer, Mo., was able to get to the hospital and fix the problems they were having with it.

"The old generator, periodically would freeze up, but we would take turns back there spraying WD-40 on it," Richmond.

Richmond said for some time the hospital had to wheel respiratory patients, who needed oxygen, back and forth from the new to the old section of the hospital as the generators rotated.

"The co-op, they just worked so hard to get us up and running (and) keep us up and running and that was a difficult task for them with everything else they were dealing with," Richmond said.

"The county OEM (coordinator) Darrel Zimmer worked with us and got us another generator that we hooked up to take care of our computers because that one quit totally. So, we just bounced generators back and forth and worked on them," Richmond said. "It was really a struggle to keep the generator on the old part going. It was difficult, but the worst part was that we sprung a leak in the roof. So, we had water leaking down the walls and puddling in the floor. That was the worst part. I think that hit us Tuesday early."

"The way I understood it from our maintenance guys, was that the water got in the seams of the roof and expanded and froze and as it froze all the drains and stuff were actually pulled away from their pole and the water was running under the drains instead of down into them," Richmond said. "So, then, we had water running down the walls and into some of our panels and electrical circuits. It was very scary and our maintenance guys got up there to try to keep on top of it and our housekeeping people had vacuums running just sucking it up as it came through the door frames and we had towels everywhere. It was horrible. One of our maintenance guys was able to get up to the roof and break the ice away from the spot where it was going under the drain. It was coming out of the ceiling in the kitchen. It was coming out of the ceilings in the bathrooms. It was a struggle."

"The maintenance guys did an amazing job," Richmond said. "They just ran from one disaster to the other."

To make things even worse for the hospital, communications were down. "I think sometime Tuesday night we lost land service and then Wednesday we lost cell service," Richmond said. "That made it difficult to get a hold of anybody but we did have our emergency radio, which is called AWIN, All Weather Information Network radio. We were able to get a hold of Darrel Zimmer through that and we were able to get a hold of other hospitals through that."

Richmond said the hospital mainly received respiratory patients. "(They) were cold and having trouble breathing or because of their power being out, they couldn't get to their oxygen. Their battery (in their oxygen unit) only lasted so long," Richmond said. Other patients had injuries from falling on the ice or trying to clean up brush from the storm.

A surprise also came to the hospital. It experienced an emergency birth during the ice storm. "We did actually have, towards the end of the ice storm, an emergency birth here, too," Richmond said. "I got to sign my first birth certificate." Dr. Bozeman was the doctor who delivered the baby, which was later sent to St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Mo.

Nurses and other employees stayed the night at the hospital until they knew all was well. "We had a good crew here," Richmond said.

Fulton County Hospital along with surrounding hospitals had problems during the ice storm. "The problem is, one, in a disaster like this, we had to rely on the people who were here," Richmond said. "We had several nurses who spent the night Monday night knowing that Tuesday was going to get bad. I think in hindsight the only way to have made it better would be to have a code that you would call in that situation (where) you know there is a 90 percent chance that this is going to happen and you require everyone who's on staff for the next shift (and) for the next day would require them to stay."

Chief Operation Officer Tammy Friel had another suggestion of what to do in case another natural disaster were to strike the area. "Initiate a disaster team that would rotate 12 (people) on and 12 off (with) 12 hours (of) working and 12 hours (of) rest but (everyone) would stay on site," Friel said.

Richmond said many nurses were able to make it to the hospital during the ice storm and ended up staying. Friel along with Dr. Arnold's wife, Renea Arnold, who is also a registered nurse, stayed at the hospital until operations started getting back to normal, Richmond said.

Four of the hospital's dietary staff stayed at the hospital when they knew things were going to be rough, Richmond said. However, once the power went out, there wasn't a way to cook anything. Richmond said, all they had to feed patients were sandwiches. "They (the dietary department) just did whatever they had to do to get by," Richmond said.

The community tried to do what it could to keep the hospital running. Richmond said, when the power was out, the hospital had no way to do laundry. As patients came piling in, linens started piling up. Water coming from the ceiling was also a problem. "We had to use all of our towels and anything we could find to clean up water," Richmond said. The hospital was also running out of linens because the hospital wasn't used to having so many patients.

"The nursing home (Southfork River Therapy and Living Center) let us go down there and do laundry," Richmond said. "That was great. That helped."

The county OEM, North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, Southfork River Therapy and Living Center along with others in the community helped the hospital out during its time of need. "It was a very good community effort to help the hospital," Richmond said.

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