For the second time in as many months, the mettle of New York hospitals was tested Nov. 12 when an American Airlines jetliner bound from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, crashed into a close-knit residential community in a beach-side section of Queens. And in what is becoming a well-versed but disheartening routine, the healthcare community rose to the occasion only to be distressed by a dearth of patients.
Arriving shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the crash was the second half of a one-two punch, killing all 260 people on board and five people on the ground.
At first fearing another terrorist strike, the mayor's office of emergency management summoned a representative from the Greater New York Hospital Association to a command post within minutes after the 9: 17 a.m. crash, said Mary Johnson, a GNYHA spokeswoman. As the morning wore on, the association sent out a series of alerts updating member hospitals on the situation, but within just a few hours, all hospitals except for those in the most immediate area were advised to stand down.
Robert Levine, president and chief executive officer of 212-bed Peninsula Hospital Center, the hospital closest to the crash site, was home raking leaves, enjoying the Veterans Day holiday, when he got the phone call. Rushing to the hospital just 12 minutes away, he set in motion the disaster plan. Within the hour, all hospital employees, many of whom live in the community, had responded, he said.
Peninsula sent nurses and physicians to the crash site just less than four miles away and treated 46 patients, most of them rescue workers suffering from smoke inhalation. Five patients were admitted to the hospital, but within two days all had been released. The hospital resumed normal operations the morning after the crash, Levine said.
Though proud of the way in which his team responded, Levine said the crash further devastated a community recovering from the loss of almost 100 people from the World Trade Center attack. But Peninsula lies some 20 miles from that disaster site and only treated a handful of local residents who received minor injuries on that fateful day. This time, it found itself on the front lines.
"The best of people come out in times of crisis, but we wanted to do more," Levine said.
By coincidence, senior managers and clinicians were gathered at the now twice-weekly bioterrorism task force meeting of three-hospital Medisys Health Network when they got the alert about the plane crash, said Ole Pedersen, a spokesman for 384-bed Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens. Jamaica was the closest trauma center to the crash site. They looked out the window and saw a plume of smoke rising from more than four miles away. Jamaica and its sister hospital, 881-bed Brookdale Hospital Center in Brooklyn, cleared 50 beds for patients.
Three ambulances were sent to the scene. Mobile medical units staffed with physicians and mental health professionals were sent to the airport to assist the families of the victims-a response team that was formed several years ago in the aftermath of another plane crash, Pedersen said. But within two hours of the crash, elective surgeries resumed, Pedersen said.
"We were prepared and ready and unfortunately got a total of 11 patients at Jamaica-mostly smoke inhalation," Pedersen said. "Unfortunately, once again like the World Trade Center, we were waiting, and the critically injured or the ones you hope to help never came."