As Hurricane Sandy roared ashore, hobbling large areas of the city, nine HHC public hospitals and four nursing homes held strong against the storm, with staff members relying on their medical experience and emergency training to keep patients safe and their medical facilities running. When Bellevue and Coney Island hospitals were forced to evacuate their patients, and a third facility, Coler on Roosevelt Island, was left without electricity, heat or hot water, their sister facilities pitched in to take in patients and assist colleagues during this singular event.
“I have never been more proud than I have been in the past few weeks,” said HHC President Alan D. Aviles. “With our skills, ingenuity, shared sense of purpose and strength, we have risen to every challenge.” Throughout HHC, patients were safe and did not experience any major disruption in care.
For Metropolitan Hospital, 70 blocks north of Bellevue Hospital, the impact has been great since its sister facility shut down after extensive flooding and damage from the storm. Metropolitan admitted 59 patients of more than 500 who were evacuated from Bellevue. Because of an increase in the need for inpatient beds, the hospital has added almost 50 beds for medical, surgical and psychiatric patients. To accommodate the increase in people seeking outpatient care, the hospital set up a walk-in health center where staff is seeing an average of 300 patients a day. The hospital added 235 medical staff and 1,000 other professionals from other areas of HHC, some of whom have since been redeployed to other facilities. The outpatient pharmacy has seen a 66 percent increase in prescriptions filled.
“The Metropolitan team pulled together in unprecedented ways to meet the needs of patients and to welcome our colleagues,” said Meryl Weinberg, Executive Director of the hospital. “During the storm, the staff comforted and cared for some of the most vulnerable patients, welcomed members of the community who had nowhere else to go during the storm, prepared meals for patients and staff who were at the hospital for long nights—the list goes on and on,” Weinberg said.
Two healthy babies were born at Metropolitan during the height of the storm. They were among at least 45 babies born – none named Sandy –during the storm on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30 at HHC facilities.
Coler Hospital, part of the Coler-Goldwater campus on Roosevelt Island, was another facility that was hard-hit by the hurricane. Before the storm, 100 medically fragile patients were moved from Coler Hospital on the north end of the island to the Goldwater Campus on the south end. Coler continued to operate despite sustaining significant damage from the storm, particularly when floodwaters ruined the electric panels that distribute power to the facility, leaving it without electricity, heat or hot water for three days. Backup boilers and generators were brought in, and heat was restored by the end of the week.
“Everyone was surprisingly upbeat,” said Aviles, who stayed at the facility for three nights. “Even though many of the staff looked tired, they were doing a wonderful job of caring for residents. It reminded me that in a long-term facility like this one, time allows for especially strong bonds between caregivers and residents. ”
HHC clinicians also provided care for more than 1,500 patients at eight Special Medical Needs Shelters located in all five boroughs. “The SMNS were challenging because that was where many of our city’s most fragile residents – particularly, evacuated nursing home residents and adult home residents - were sheltered,” said Dr. Ross Wilson, Chief Medical Officer, who served as HHC emergency commander during the storm and its immediate aftermath. “We were fortunate to have the assistance of very capable federal Disaster Medical Assistance Teams. Our own clinical staff was exemplary in comforting these special needs patients and making sure their medical needs were met.”
In addition to Metropolitan Hospital, the other HHC facilities that have taken in patients and staff displaced by the storm are: Harlem Hospital in Manhattan; Woodhull and Kings County in Brooklyn; Jacobi, North Central Bronx and Lincoln in the Bronx; and Elmhurst and Queens hospitals in Queens. Moreover, Kings County Hospital took in cancer patients and HHC medical providers from Coney Island, while Woodhull Hospital took in cancer patients and providers from Bellevue.
Dr. Mary Marron-Corwin of Harlem Hospital described what happened when two babies from the Bellevue Neonatal Intensive Care Unit arrived at Harlem. “One of the moments that touched me the most was when Dr. Elena Wachtel from Bellevue came down our hallway outside of the NICU with a 5-pound baby in her arms and her staff member had a 4 ½ pound baby in his arms,” Dr. Marron-Corwin said.
“They were clutching the babies against their chests as there was no room in the ambulance they had for incubators, so they carried the babies close to their hearts. The nurses that received them here at Harlem had been with me for those entire three nights (during and after the storm). We all just stared at each other, laughed and sighed together in disbelief at what we were experiencing. In that instant, we saw the miracle of medicine and the impact that team work has on the lives of our patients.”
The Mayor and City Council have allotted $300 million for repairs to the public hospitals. Repairs will be required at Bellevue, Coney Island and Coler as well as Harlem and Metropolitan Hospitals. Workers are being urged to wear appropriate protective gear as they go about the cleanup and repair process.
“Now, as we work to restore HHC physical plants, cleaning and fixing areas that have suffered damage, staff safety is a level-one priority,” said Antonio D. Martin, HHC Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.
“We have to assume that this type of monster storm with an incredible storm surge will happen again, and we’re going to better protect the facilities,” Aviles said.