by Amanda Wyatt
Hospitals have always served as a beacon of hope in times of crisis, and Southampton Hospital – an institution that has served the East End for over 100 years – is no different.
As Hurricane Sandy tore its way through the East Coast last week, Southampton Hospital provided a place of refuge for the sick, injured, vulnerable and emotionally frazzled.
“Hospitals become a place that people run to in a disaster,” says President & Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Robert S. Chaloner.
While Southampton Hospital has disaster planning committees and drills in place throughout the year, they boost their efforts at the first sign of a pending disaster.
“As we get wind of something happening, like a hurricane is on its way, we start to ramp up,” Chaloner says.
Before Hurricane Sandy hit, the hospital began stocking up on supplies and checking their equipment. Chaloner and hospital administrators began meeting every day, and sometimes several times per day, to update each other on preparation efforts.
The hospital also postponed elective surgeries and other non-essential procedures last week to make room for emergencies, said Chaloner. In particular, the hospital paid attention to people reliant on monitors and ventilators, infants and other vulnerable patients, understanding the implications of the storm on their most critical patients in the face of potential flooding or power outages.
Before the storm hit, many asthmatics, people on oxygen tanks and other patients who wouldn’t ordinarily be hospitalized, but required regular medical care arrived at the hospital to wait out the storm, fearing that they would lose power at home.
And even as Hurricane Sandy was hitting Long Island, it was business as usual for the hospital, said Chaloner. Heart and gall bladder attacks, appendicitis and psychiatric issues were not waylaid by the storm and according to Chaloner there were even a couple of mothers in labor as Sandy bared down on the region.
“It doesn’t stop in the middle of the storm,” Chaloner says. “Ambulances were still arriving.”
The morning after the storm brought an upsurge in patients, as is common with most disasters, said Chaloner. The hospital, he said, was “bombarded” with patients who had waited for inclement weather to pass before seeking care. It also had quite a few people who had injured themselves cutting down branches. Some experienced heart attacks after overexerting themselves, and a number of others had accidents with power tools, he said. Broken bones, stress-related injuries and eye injuries were also seen at the hospital.
Power outages were largely the biggest issue the hospital faced last week, said Chaloner.
“The big issue here – and it’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about the future and trying to get a new hospital – is our infrastructure is ancient,” Chaloner said.
Marsha Kenny, Director of Marketing and Public Affairs at the hospital, jokes that the hospital has a large yellow generator that “looks like a farm vehicle.” Since it’s 55 years old and “cranky,” it can act up at the worst possible times.
During the storm, the hospital briefly lost power twice – two moments that Chaloner calls “absolutely frightening.”
Still, as he points out, the hospital was lucky during Hurricane Sandy, especially since the vast majority of the staff was able to make it to work.
“Amazingly, health care people sort of thrive in disasters,” says Chaloner, who slept in his office during Sandy. “Despite all the technology, health care really depends on people, especially when there are power failures.”
“We had probably 80 people camped out in the hospital that stayed over Monday night that said, ‘I’m just staying until it’s over, because I want to make sure the hospital has the bodies that it needs,’” he says.
“But we have really, really good people here. They’ve just responded fabulously,” Chaloner adds.
Sarah Cohen, a physical therapist at the hospital, says she came to work on Tuesday to find that everything was under control.
“I think that it’s times like this that people really bond together and are there for a shared purpose,” she says. “It’s a great group of nurses and therapists and doctors. That’s what comes out during any kind of difficult time. I’m very thankful to be part of a community like that.”