Chief nursing officer recounts Katrina efforts

HCWs put patients first in storm

[Editor’s note: This e-mail was written by Pamela McVey, RN, CIC, chief nursing officer at Biloxi (MS) Regional Medical Center, to a chief nursing officer in Natchez, MS. McVey was formerly director of infection control/employee health at the hospital. She gave Hospital Employee Health permission to reprint this e-mail, and added this postscript: " We all understand that there is no ‘getting back to normal.’ We are now in the process of redefining what is normal. There is a great spirit here in the coastal counties of Mississippi. We’ll be OK." ]

Well, we just got our e-mail up and running. I hope this actually goes through to you. It must have been your prayers that saved us. If you came down here and saw firsthand the death and destruction on the coast from Ocean Springs to Waveland, MS, you would see that there is NO WAY that Biloxi Regional Medical Center should still be standing!!!

All of our staff, to the best of our knowledge, survived the storm as far as no major injury or death. Everyone is blessed to be alive. However, a large percentage of our staff have suffered catastrophic losses of homes and belongings. Many, many, many of us have lost absolutely everything we own, myself included. My home was in an area, in Pass Christian, that is so badly demolished, that the National Guard and EOC [Emergency Operations Center] cannot even get to it yet. Some of my pets were in a kennel in Pass Christian that more than likely no longer exists. Everyone continues to put all of the personal loss behind them and tend to the patients, our first priority. It is only in the silence of a broken heart, when alone for a few minutes, or with a trusted co-worker, that the tears flow briefly. Then it’s back to business. I do believe that most of the patients do not know the extent of the loss of the health care workers that are caring for them. And, they shouldn’t know it. It should not be their burden.

You just would not believe it here. The city of Biloxi has no water, so we have had no water to run our air conditioners. Of course we have had mid 90-degree weather. Inside, it has to be well over 100 degrees. Of course, this also means that we cannot bathe or flush toilets. Think of 100 degrees, nobody bathing, and no toilets flushing. Can you spell "STINK"? We must constantly watch the staff for heat exhaustion in addition to watching the patients for the same thing. We have had only generator power; so needless to say, in order to conserve the generator power, there were frequent and extended times that the elevators were not working. (We have six floors in our hospital.)

We had been cut off from all outside communication. During the storm, we lost cable, so could not monitor the weather. Our EOC radio did not work, the phones went down, and the cell phones would work very sporadically. Windows in patient rooms started flying in and we had to evacuate the patients out of their rooms and into the hallways. As windows continued to fly in and ceiling tiles were ripped from the ceiling, glass was flying all over. We had to try to nail the doors shut, because after a certain time, the broken windows were trying to suck everything out.

We then had to evacuate the sixth-floor patients to the first floor. We no sooner got 38 patients from Med Surg down to the first floor, when it became apparent that the Gulf of Mexico was in our hospital loading dock, just about ready to lap over into the ER.

Things were flying off of our roof, patient rooms were leaking, not really from the roof, but the force of the wind, close to 145 mph, which was driving the rain straight through our bricks. Water was then seeping down onto the ceiling of the floors below and then that started the whole domino effect of ceiling tiles falling, things getting ruined by water coming through the ceiling, etc.

When the storm ended, we were all still alive. We didn’t have any idea of what it looked like outside of our little world.

We finally were able to start getting in touch with corporate and once that happened and they started getting a list of our needs, things got mobilized really fast. I can’t say enough about HMA [Corp., owner of the hospital]! They are busting it, trying to get our every need met!

Our sister HMA employees are arriving to help and they are a godsend! Supplies and ice and fuel and clothes and chocolate and our every need is being seen to! You would just bust down and cry if you could see the response from our Mississippi division and all of corporate and our sister hospitals!

Homeland Security is here and there are federal police protecting our ER doors. The National Guard is here, [National Disaster Medical System] is here, and it is overwhelming to see all of this all in and around our beautiful little hospital.

Tonight, for the first time since the storm, we have some air conditioning going. We are not sure how long it will last, but we believe that as we sleep on the floors all over the hospital tonight, we’ll get some sleep for the first time. We are running out of food and we do hope that a food truck will reach us tomorrow. It was supposed to have come yesterday and did not make it.

I cannot say enough about the staff of BRMC! Through the entire 12-hour beating, this hospital was, even with moving patients all over to the best area of safety, one step ahead of the storm, and only one of our patients had any anxiety. She was a mom with a potential [pulmonary embolism], with a 4-day-old baby in her arms. That is a tribute to our staff that the patients never panicked because the staff never let on how scared they were. They were calm and confident, professional, and positive.

It has been, and remains, an experience like no other. Yesterday evening, I got my first chance to get out of the building and walk around a little bit. It is 100% totally overwhelming. It smells like death and destruction. It looks like someone dropped a big bomb on us. Almost everything is gone or has been moved to a new location.

Our ER and grounds look like a M.A.S.H. unit. There are injured people everywhere! Our morgue is filling up. There are not enough shelters for the stranded, hungry, thirsty people that are approaching our hospital hourly. We had a young man arrive to our ER and die today with a body temp of 108! We have snakebite victims, people who are already septic with Vibrio because of seven-hour swims clinging to trees after having been blown out into the storm.

Our nurses, doctors, techs, therapists, and everyone else has been fantastic throughout! The commitment and dedication to the great responsibility of caring for the patients in our community who have been entrusted to our care and protection has been evident this week. It is an awesome and humbling experience to say that I am their chief nursing officer. With a lesser crew, we would not have survived as long as we have. I can’t say that I wish this experience on anyone, but I do know, it is and will continue to be, a life-changing experience. God bless you and thank you for praying for us!