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Preparation key with Superstorm Sandy in D.C. region

Friday November 9, 2012
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Maureen Swick doesn’t have any horror stories to share of her hospitals’ encounter with Superstorm Sandy. Likewise, she offers no tales of unusual derring-do.

But for Swick, RN, PhD, MSN, CNE at Inova Health System in Falls Church, Va., that is just fine. "I’m sure the stories out of places like New York are far more riveting than what we have to tell here at Inova," Swick said. "But we attribute some of that to our system being so well-prepared."

As Superstorm Sandy swept ashore Oct. 29, it dealt extensive damage, exacting a particularly heavy toll on New York City and portions of New Jersey. While less severe in locations to the south, it also forced healthcare facilities in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., to take action. For most hospitals in and around the Chesapeake Bay and further east along the coast, the action began in the days leading up to the storm’s arrival.

At Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, Md., about nine miles from the barrier islands along Maryland’s Atlantic coast, planning began Oct. 25 when weather forecasts indicated Sandy could come ashore early the next week.

Elective surgeries were canceled for Oct. 29, and hospital leadership began reviewing their staff rosters to make sure the hospital would be properly staffed and ready for whatever Sandy might dish out, said Colleen Wareing, RN, BSN, MS, NEA-BC, FACHE, vice president of patient services.

"All staff were notified to develop a family plan and to prepare for the potential of spending several days at the hospital," Wareing said.

Throughout the region, nurse executives and hospital spokespeople told similar tales. At Mary Washington Healthcare in Fredericksburg, Va., spokeswoman Debbie McInnis said that Sandy, while still a strong storm, eased enough for most nurses to commute relatively normally, though the hospital offered its nurses and other employees beds at the hospital.

"Very few took advantage of the extra beds," McInnis said.

But farther north, where Sandy struck with more strength, other hospitals shared slightly different stories. At Northwest Hospital in Randallstown, Md., near Baltimore, hospital spokeswoman Helene King said her hospital provided cots for hospital staff Oct. 29. "There were about 150 employees – not just nursing – who were sleeping in every free nook and cranny around the hospital," King said.

At Inova, which operates hospitals in Fairfax and Alexandria, Va., as well as three other locations, many nurses volunteered to work during the storm, Swick said.

"We didn’t require them to stay, but a number of them did," Swick said, noting the hospitals provided beds for those who opted to ride out the storm in their units.

At Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson, Md., Lori Kantziper, RN,C-MNN, BSN, and nurse manager of GBMC’s postpartum unit, said that none of her nurses stayed home.

"That is the epitome of teamwork, professionalism and personal commitment," Kantziper said. "I heard one new dad tell a nurse, 'Thank you for being here.’ It was heartwarming."

At Inova, one of the biggest challenges nurses faced was finding a way to commute. While the hospitals remained open, public transportation in the Washington, D.C., area was shut down, forcing about 16% of Inova’s employees to find alternative ways of getting to and from work.

The Baltimore area mass transit system also ceased operations before Sandy, as well, King said, presenting similar commuting challenges to those working at Northwest Hospital. But Northwest worked around the issues by establishing shuttle bus routes and using hospital security vehicles to transport nurses and other employees who lived within 15 miles of the hospital.

None of the hospitals reported an increase in patient census as a result of the storm, though Swick said Inova hospitals did see a slight surge in patients in the early stages of the storm as local residents sought medical attention in the hospitals that they ordinarily would have sought at physicians’ offices or other healthcare facilities that closed as Sandy approached.

Swick noted that hospitals in the region benefited tremendously from two things. First, she said, the region was at the far south end of Sandy’s breadth, meaning it escaped much of the devastation that swept ashore in New York and New Jersey. Secondly, she said hospitals already had spent months and years planning for the arrival of a storm like Sandy and already had tested a number of aspects of their emergency plans in lesser, though still destructive, weather systems in the recent past.

"We all had plenty of notice of what was coming," Swick said. "We were all well-prepared."

Jonathan Bilyk is a freelance writer.


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