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By Yen Duong
As evacuees make their way out of harm’s way to shelters across eastern and southern North Carolina, health care providers from Charlotte-based Atrium Health headed toward the floods on Sunday afternoon. State officials summoned Carolinas MED-1, a 14-bed mobile hospital, to Pender County, just north of Wilmington.
“Pender Memorial has been flooded and evacuated, so we’ll be the closest facility in a 50-mile radius for that community,” said Kristy Haynes, manager of Carolinas MED-1, in an interview. “We’re bringing a full gamut of health care professionals, from trauma surgeons to [emergency department] physicians, [Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists], and a whole group of nurses, paramedics, respiratory specialists, neonatal specialists, so we can handle all aspects of care.”
The caravan of nine vehicles with flashing red lights drove out of a warehouse near the Charlotte airport into the pouring rain, carrying more than 25 of those staff as well as a chaplain and a behavioral health specialist.
The mobile facility is a 53-foot tractor-trailer which expands into a 1,000-square-foot hospital and includes a surgical suite. Accompanying it was a second tractor-trailer containing medical supplies and equipment, two more flatbed trucks of supplies and three SUVs.
If a hospital becomes flooded, loses power, or otherwise becomes incapacitated, the state can call on Atrium to deploy MED-1, which can expand with tents into an even larger hospital. Several of those tents and some staff remain in Tryon, at the World Equestrian Games, which run until Sept. 23, where MED-1 was serving spectators, athletes and coaches before being requested.
One of a kind
MED-1, which is the only such mobile hospital in the U.S, is part of a national system for emergency management and can be sent across state lines for emergencies. Officials brought the facility to Indiana after floods and stayed in Mississippi for weeks after Hurricane Katrina, according to the manufacturer’s website.
MED-1 was built in 2004 after Dr. Tom Blackwell, then with Atrium, designed the mobile hospital unit. Atrium has held the patent for MED-1 since then, which means Atrium would receive royalties from construction of any new mobile hospitals, Schwebach said in an interview after the press conference. Schwebach estimated a new MED-1 would cost $7 million and said that Atrium has recently decided to build a second unit.
So far, no one else in the U.S. has ponied up for their own unit, but one is used in Ecuador as a traveling rural hospital, according to the manufacturer’s website.
After Hurricane Matthew in late 2016, MED-1 went to Lumberton to assist the local hospital, said Schwebach in an interview.
“Typically in storms like this you don’t want to pre-deploy or pre-position the mobile hospital, because you don’t want it to get destroyed,” Schwebach said. “Typically our mobile hospital will be asked to deploy if a current medical facility is compromised, whether it’s flood or fire. If there’s a way to get to it like we did last year with Lumberton, then we’ll get in and provide health care service for that hospital.”
Competition becomes cooperation
Between hurricanes, fires, floods and other natural disasters, hospitals which normally compete can pool resources to help patients, said Dr. Edward S. Kim of Atrium’s Levine Cancer Institute, who worked in Houston during Hurricane Harvey.
“When I was in the Texas medical facility, there was a hospital that had to evacuate all 800 people because the generators were in the basement,” Kim said. “The health care systems across this region come together as a team. If anything were to compromise our hospital operating systems, there would be more than enough people out there to jump in and help patients and transport them to safety.”
While MED-1 includes five full-time staffers year-round, the crew heading to Pender County consists of additional Atrium employees who volunteered for the mission.
“We actually had a child born inside the mobile hospital [during Hurricane Matthew],” said Greg Miller, Atrium’s director of clinical services for mobile medicine. “The life-saving things that we saw [on that mission] changed our lives. It makes you want to help. It makes you willing to leave your family behind so you can use the skills you have to help others in their time of need.”