After the storm swept through, our first inspections Aug. 29 revealed little damage at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic. We had a few broken windows and some roof damage, but the building held up well.
But the biggest crisis and challenge of my life began at 1: 30 a.m. Aug. 30. I was awakened by my chief operating officer, who told me the water in the boiler room had been rising a foot an hour since midnight and that if it continued at that rate we had, at best, only another two to three hours before we would lose all power. We had seven ventilator patients whose lives would be in jeopardy, and we had to move fast to get them out. We have a parking deck connected to the hospital that we had evaluated sturdy enough to support a helicopter, but it had four light poles in the middle.
What happened in the next four hours was nothing short of a miracle. Our maintenance crew pulled down the light poles. Acadian Ambulance Service agreed to pick up the patients. And we made arrangements with other HCA hospitals to take them. Our staff and physicians got their patients ready, the water began to rise and we started transporting patients by helicopter just after the sun came up.
Early on the morning of Aug. 30, we met with our key managers. We had no idea why the water was rising. We had to assume that it would keep rising, and that we would lose power. We had to get out, so we hatched a plan, and I tried to stay out of the way and let our physicians and nurses triage patients. Other staffers determined what vital supplies needed replenishing. Meanwhile, HCA officials across the Gulf Coast were working frantically to coordinate a transportation plan to pick up patients and staff. How many people? At least 1,200 at Tulane, which included 160 patients, plus employees, physicians and their families-along with 76 dogs and cats that I didn't know about at the time.
That night, our people on the roof evacuating patients heard gunshots but continued their work. The lawlessness certainly was a distraction, but the Tulane police were great, and they are very capable. Late in the day we ran out of fuel, so our generators shut down and the building began to get hot. The last of the ventilator patients had to go up six stories of the parking deck in pickup trucks since the elevators shut down and our ambulance was too tall to squeeze to the top along the driveway. Then, out of nowhere, appeared a man sent in by HCA to be our flight coordinator-and boy was he important as we started moving patients on Black Hawk helicopters leased by HCA. By the end of the day, we had moved all but about 20 patients.
HCA also had developed an extraction plan for the remaining staff: helicopter to the airport for a bus trip to Lafayette, La., and the haven of HCA-owned Women's and Children's Hospital and Southwest Medical Center.
On Aug. 31, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries showed up to help us move some patients that we had inherited from the Superdome on Aug. 28. We received more than 60 additional people in need of medical attention for chronic conditions. So, we assisted state wildlife officials in the evacuation by boat of these patients and their loved ones.
On Sept. 1, there were just a few small helicopters, and we had some patients to move, but the process was slow. A frantic medical director of critical care showed up by boat from Charity Hospital with a major problem: Charity was in a meltdown. He had 21 critical-care patients, many of whom had been hand-ventilated for two days, and he couldn't get any help from the state. "Can you help me?" he asked. This was a tough question, but it had only one answer. We would give them access to the small aircraft. It was midday, and things were moving slowly. It didn't look good. Then, in a period between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., things started to happen-thanks to the arrival of a big Chinook helicopter. With two huge rotors, the chopper carries about 50 to 60 people. As it approached, cheers broke out from below and people felt they had a chance. So, for a few hours we made progress.
And then the progress stopped. No more big birds arrived and that left us with a major problem. What happened? I don't know. People were calm when we told them they'd be there another day. They just sat down and began to prepare to go to bed.
Sept. 2 was pretty anticlimactic. At 8 a.m. Chinooks began showing up unexpectedly, taking 60 people at a time. In a matter of 21/2 hours, everyone was gone but police and the last remnants of management. After attempts to arrange coordination with Charity to use our helipad, we left for a safe haven.
Jim Montgomery, president and CEO, Tulane University and Clinic, New Orleans