Friday, December 19, 2008

When Disaster Looms Large

Disaster…a word that can elicit a shot of adrenaline for most folks! For those of us who work in a hospital, the word “disaster” is often a call to action. Over my 20 years as a hospital CEO, there have been plenty of disasters…most are natural disasters. As I write this we are experiencing a winter storm that began with ice, turned to sleet, and is now snow. I am not sure exactly what I will find in the morning. The phone may ring before the night is over.

This storm brings back memories of one disaster in particular: the ice storm of 2007! I first realized it was going to be a very long day when I was awakened by the sound of cracking limbs. My two large soft maple trees were literally tumbling down around my house. An inch of ice covered everything. It took a half hour to free my windshield of ice so I could begin my 25 mile journey to the hospital.

Suzanne Cooner, one of our vice presidents and the administrator in charge of any and all disasters, had already initiated our disaster protocols and set up a command center. (Interesting factoid: Suzanne is trained at the highest level of incident command…a very reassuring thing to have someone so skilled when it comes to disaster. In fact we call her the “Queen of Disaster”!)

We had three priorities for us that day:

• Deal with the widespread power outage.

• Get enough staff to the hospital to meet the needs.

• Reach out to those with special medical needs in the community.

It was cold, and warming shelters were needed. Those who rely on electronic medical equipment to maintain their health needed shelter with electricity. Eight couples with such needs took up residence in our OB unit while they waited for power to be restored to their homes.

The conference room at the hospital became the incident command center for the county. Volunteers and staff made welfare calls on thousands of people in rural Poweshiek County. Public safety officers would be dispatched to bring those who needed help to shelters. It was a massive effort with multiple agencies working together, just like we had practiced through drills many times before. In fact, Governor Culver and Adj. General of the Iowa National Guard, Ron Dardis, stopped by to see the operation in action and declared it a model for all counties.

This week, Tom Newton, director, Iowa Department of Public Health, stopped in for a discussion with all those involved in emergency preparedness in Poweshiek County. Tom and I serve together on the University of Iowa College of Public Health Advisory Board. I have been impressed with his leadership. He is a great public health leader and I appreciate his effort to get out into the state to see firsthand how we prepare for emergencies.

Many of our local public safety agencies were represented at the meeting with Tom, like Police Chief Jody Matherly and Fire Chief Dan Sicard; Mayor Gordon Canfield and State Senator Tom Rielly; EMS and County Emergency Management leadership; and of course many of our hospital staff. The meeting was led by Chad Nath, GRMC emergency preparedness director. (Incidentally, I call Chad our MacGyver – one of the handiest and ingenious guys I know!) He gave a presentation about the ice storm and what a magnificent job we all did working together to meet the needs of our community. Director Newton declared that our work in Poweshiek County was indeed a model for the rest of the state. IDPH Deputy Director Mary Jones was also on hand for the meeting. Mary is responsible for the trauma certification system in Iowa and she praised our trauma system from the onset of the rating program through to present. She said that if she were in an accident in the State of Iowa, GRMC would be one of the hospitals where she would want to receive her care. We were actually the first hospital in Iowa to go through the certification process a decade ago. I am very proud of all the dedicated women and men at GRMC who put the lives of others first in the face of disasters.

The truth is we really never know what tomorrow is going to bring: a chemical spill from an 18- wheeler on I-80; a tornado or major wind storm; a massive explosion or fire at one of the industrial sites in the area; or a senseless act of violence against innocent victims. What I do know is that the hospital, working hand-in-hand with many other agencies, stands ready to jump into action to serve others. We tuck our families into the basement and head to the hospital in the middle of summer storms. We work 24- and even 36-hour shifts until the job is done. We deploy our practiced skills and talents in the face of danger and personal risk, all in the service to others.

Being one of the best in the state doesn’t just happen. It takes dedication, education, and training; reaching out to other agencies; a desire to serve; and a little sense of adventure. Fortunately, we have all those things and I am proud of the team at GRMC and all our colleagues in Poweshiek County. I know I will sleep well tonight even with Mother Nature up to her old winter tricks, because I know we are ready. Can’t wait to see what will happen when winter officially arrives next week!

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent GRMC’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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