Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011, started out as kind of a lazy, muggy, drizzly day suited for staying in bed with coffee and a good book.
The news had been blabbing about this hurricane Irene coming up the eastern coastline, but we are Eastern Shore of Maryland folk. This is the home of generations of watermen and farmers. We are hale, hardy and used to nor'easters, tidal surges and high winds. Let those more timid souls worry about Irene and her siblings rolling in from the Caribbean, we thought.
Thanks to some foresight by the Administration at Shore Health System, it was decided we would open our severe weather command centers for 24 hours during the time Irene was charted to pass over our geographic location.
As the laboratory director and resident of Cambridge, where one of the system hospitals is located, I volunteered to be part of the team. We were to be on site for at least 24 hours starting at noon, Saturday, to oversee the situation through the storm.
Needless to say, things started out slow and boring. My associates were the nursing manager and operating room (OR) manager at the hospital. The CEO was in and out most of the day. Of course, the ever-present nursing supervisor was there.
Jane from the OR brought in a huge pot of chili and there were plenty of snacks. The rain continued into the afternoon and the wind began to pick up a bit. Around mid-afternoon, word started to spread about the rain starting to trickle in.
The Plant Ops and Environmental Services staff were on top of the situations as small leaks developed in Chemotherapy, the Pharmacy, a little problem in the OR and in a couple of vacant patient rooms. No big deal. It was pretty much the nuisance that we expected.
The Maintenance Manager was on the scene and conveyed a cool confidence about the leaks. Staffing was good and the evening people arrived for duty. The daylight folks contemplated staying at the hospital or going home, hoping to get back in Sunday morning--an iffy call, with the forecast.
All Hands on Deck
The situation remained relatively calm until about 8 p.m., when things started to unravel. Leaks sprang up everywhere. It was like a million paper cuts for a couple of hours until about 10:00 p.m., when all hell broke loose.
The OR had serious water and the ceiling in the lab began to leak. This was unexpected as the lab area is partially below grade and certain leaks occur with hard rains. Dripping from the ceiling was something new.
Thank goodness both shifts were on site and the clinical specialist had come in, "just in case." It took all hands on deck as well as the maintenance crew and Environmental Services to save the nearly $2.5 million worth of equipment from destruction.
Foul weather gear was the uniform of the day inside the lab. Despite the conditions, Dr. Rachel Shiming noted that "every single lab I ordered that night was completed." She was able to evaluate every patient in the emergency department due to the efforts of lab and support personnel.
The membrane covering the flat roof over the lab was lifted by the winds and torn to shreds. A maintenance item that wasn't even on the radar screen for Plant Ops became our Achilles' heel.
By 3:00 a.m., we could no longer keep ahead of the water coming into the lab. All the equipment had been covered with plastic tarps and plastic bags. The furniture and books were at the mercy of the storm.
At 3 a.m., the CEO, Gerard Walsh, arrived on site to pronounce the decision. "No lab--no patients." We would close the hospital and evacuate the patients to our sister hospital 14 miles away. With water literally running through the lab, we secured what we could and evacuated.
The patient transfer was handled by EMS professionals like a military maneuver. It was completed without a hitch.
Roofers were on the job before the rain stopped and the disaster recovery firm came in and took over for the next 4 days. They dried the place out and salvaged what they could, from paper work to credenzas. It was amazing to watch them work.
The lab was turned back over to us on Thursday with a directive that we would re-open the hospital on Friday at 7:00 a.m. To make life exciting, CMS sent two inspectors in to discuss our plans for getting back on-line.
The Manufacturers' service reps were phenomenal. They certified the equipment and then the laboratorians proceeded to validate performance and initiate the necessary accuracy and reproducibility studies before putting the instruments through their paces with quality control. This went on non-stop--except for a pizza lunch provided by the pathologists--for nearly 24 hours.
At 7:00 a.m. Friday morning, exactly 5 days from the worst of Irene's terror, Dorchester General Hospital opened back up for business.
There have been a few longer term issues like mold and mildew but, overall, the lab came through with some fresh paint, new tiles and a few new pieces of furniture. We lost only one PC and an IT switch. The OR and pharmacy have had similar success.
Kudos to the entire team, from administration to dietary for the spirit that turned this near disaster into a happy ending for the community of Cambridge, MD.
Michael D'Arcangelo is laboratory director, Shore Health System, Easton, MD.