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Hospitals throughout the eastern part of North Carolina have been affected, but none more than Southeastern Regional in Lumberton.
By Rose Hoban
On Saturday, as Hurricane Matthew’s eye scraped the southeastern-most edge of North Carolina, the power went out at Southeastern Regional Medical Center. But Joann Anderson, the CEO of Southeastern Health, which has it’s flagship at the Lumberton hospital, was ready.
Hospitals are required to have generators for just such an occasion, but in anticipation of a “water event,” Anderson’s management team had asked many staff to stay.
“I have had nurses and other staff who have been here since Friday and have not been home, I have many people who are working and can’t get home,” Anderson said by phone Wednesday. “Their houses are in the flood area and they can’t get to them.”
Many of Anderson’s staff have had trouble making it to work. Floodwaters surround downtown Lumberton where the hospital is located, effectively making the downtown an island.
“We have a number of employees who have attempted to get into work and can’t,” she said. “We’ve had others who would have taken 30 minutes to get here and it’s taken hours, they’ve had to go very convoluted routes to get here.”
And finally, others have come in because they have nowhere else to go.
“We have others who were boated out or rescued, or evacuated prior to the flooding occurring, they know they’ve lost their home, but they’re here with a smile on their face and taking care of people and just being thankful that they have a place to work and that they’re safe,” Anderson said.
She laughed. On the other end of the line, one can imagine Anderson shaking her head.
“It’s been a time…”
Power, water, internet
Anderson was doing her first interview in days because she has been working almost steadily to keep the hospital going. Also, the Internet was down until Wednesday morning and other forms of communications were spotty.
“We’re finally digging through emails we’ve received,” she said. “The landline was necessary and we’ve had to depend on our cell phones as much as possible, but service has been sporadic.”
Being offline was the least of Southeastern Regional’s problems, though. The generators that are keeping refrigerators humming and surgical lights shining can overheat and fail, much like a barely used car doing a high speed, cross-country trip. Twice.
Anderson said that one generator failed Wednesday morning. Luckily, state officials supplied them with a temporary generator. A press release from the hospital Wednesday morning noted excessive diesel exhaust outside the facility.
But Southeastern’s biggest problem is water, or lack of it: The water treatment plant in Lumberton, which supplies the city and the hospital, is under water.
“We lost that, I believe, on Monday,” Anderson said, noting the days have run together.
Hospitals use a tremendous amount of water, from hand washing to flushing nasty bodily fluids down the drain, to cooking, sterilizing surgical equipment, and performing most laboratory tests.
“For instance, we have no sprinkler system, we had to put in a manual fire watch,” Anderson said. “We have people roaming the building looking for fires so that we would manually see it, because we have no other way to catch a potential threat. That’s a continuous fire-watch situation.”
And, with no municipal power and no municipal water, there only way to flush a toilet is by hand.
“We’ve had to have staff going from bathroom to bathroom to bathroom, flushing commodes, manually, using a bucket of water and pouring it into the commode to flush them,” she said.
Anderson said the main hospital had deployed a temporary water treatment plant that is currently supplying potable water to about half of Southeastern Health’s main campus. But there’s still issues at the long-term care facilities operated by the network.
“Just the human resource needed to handle those needs has been tremendous,” she said.
The hospital has evacuated many critical needs patients to other facilities.
North Carolina Hospital Association spokeswoman Julie Henry said the hospital is lucky to have Anderson, who’s been at the helm of rural hospitals for two decades.
“I’d be surprised if she’s slept,” Henry said.
Henry, who has experience handling natural disasters from her time at the state Department of Health and Human Services, said that, flooding is probably the worst crisis for hospitals.
However, the state hospitals have a system of mutual aid during disasters that has been in effect for the past week.
“From our perspective, the number one goal was to help the state officials assess the situation,” Henry said. She explained that much of the response is lead by the Division of Health Services Regulation and the Office of Emergency Medical Services, offices that have been through disasters before.
“Several folks I’ve talked to have mentioned what we learned in Floyd,” Henry said, noting that these situations are why hospitals run tabletop and real-time disaster drills several times a year.
“A couple of CEOs who have been around since Floyd said the things they learned… have helped, if not in the preparation, at least in the recovery,” she said.
Anderson and Henry both said state officials have been very responsive to needs, as well other hospitals via those mutual aid pacts. Southeastern has an agreement with Charlotte-based Carolinas HealthCare System, which deployed their mobile emergency/operating room, Med-1, to Lumberton. It arrived Tuesday.
“We’ve had offers from Columbus Regional, from Cape Fear Valley, from FirstHealth, from Duke, Novant,” Anderson said. “On a regular business day we might be in competition with each other, but that just went out the door, and we’re all in health care, and we’re all taking care of people, and tell me what you need and we’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”
Then there’s the local community. Anderson said her people put out an appeal on Facebook and on the hospital website for nurses and other licensed professionals to help give her own staff a break.
“We’ve had tremendous response from the community, overwhelming,” she said. “The phones were flooded within no time. We have three pages of names of people, nurses and others, who have just said, ‘Tell me what you need, when you need me to work and I will be there.’”