In tornado aftermath, hospital 'a refuge'

HCWs support each other — and community

April 27 in Tuscaloosa, AL, started with eerie expectation, with warnings of severe weather and reports of tornadoes. By the afternoon, "it was very quiet, very dark and quite warm," says Beth Francis, SPHR, vice president for human resources for the DCH Health System in Tuscaloosa. "We knew the area was quite susceptible to being hit."

As the sky grew darker, televisions throughout DCH Regional Medical Center flickered with ominous weather reports. Tuscaloosa was in the path of a monster storm — a mile wide with winds of 190 miles per hour. Hospital employees began moving patients into the hallways. The lights went out, and the generators kicked on. Just a block away, the tornado blasted through the college town, wreaking devastation. Some of the hospital's windows blew out, but otherwise the hospital was unscathed.

Emergency preparedness plans helped the hospital establish its command center and guided it through the disaster and aftermath. But ultimately, it was the dedication of employees that carried the day as the hospital became an anchor for a shattered community.

Some people had huddled in the hospital's large parking garage to seek protection from the tornado. "After the tornado came through, [the hospital] became a place of refuge," says Francis. "People were just walking through the doors to get care. People who had lost their home were just walking over this way."

DCH Regional Medical Center eventually treated about 1,000 people who had been injured by the tornado, from mild concussions or fractures to life-threatening trauma. Eventually, authorities would determine that 43 people died in Tuscaloosa from that tornado.

In a disaster, hospital administrators must be able to expand their capacity even while employees wrestle with the same difficulties as the rest of the community. In fact, about 300 employees were affected personally by the tornado, some of them facing catastrophic damage to their homes, says Francis. One part-time employee, a student, was killed in his home.

Yet employees continued to report for work — even beyond their scheduled shifts. "We didn't have to call nurses in. People came on their own," she says. "Physicians who didn't [even] work here came to help. They were put to work. You had people who were working who didn't know if their house was standing."

Hospital sets up employee 'store'

Offers of help also poured in, and the health system mobilized to support employees and the community.

The Employee Assistance Program quickly responded to various needs, from the practical to the emotional. The hospital opened a "store," with personal items, such as shampoo, razors, and diapers, clothes, including color-coded hospital scrubs, and other household needs. The items were donated. Employee just needed to complete a checklist of their needs and they would be delivered to their unit.

There was an outpouring from around the country. St. Tammany Parish Hospital in LA, for example, sent gift cards from Winn-Dixie, Target, Walmart, and Lowes. The DCH Foundation set up a M*A*S*H* fund, which raised about $300,000 to assist employees. Unaffected employees could donate their unused paid-time-off in lieu of money.

The hospital also created a resource center for employees, a place where they could meet with representatives from the American Red Cross, legal counsel, construction contractors, or the credit union.

Ultimately, the tornado taught Tuscaloosa about resilience and caring. When a massive tornado hit Joplin, MO, about a month later, DCH Medical Center offered assistance. St. Johns Regional Medical Center there took a direct hit. The tornado shattered the windows and sent glass flying throughout the hospital, as the building shook and some patients were flung about. Five patients died due to the tornado, according to news reports.

"We appreciate everything that people have done for us. It makes you want to help others," says Francis.

Even months after the tornado, clean up continued. "We are moving along. And so is Tuscaloosa," Francis says.