Hospitals prepare for disasters all the time. But it's not until disaster strikes that you're able to gauge response and observe the heroics that follow. Through hardship, people rise up to support one another.
The 800-bed hospital I serve in Baton Rouge, La., was a triage center for Hurricane Katrina victims. Now 11 years later, the hospital experienced a familiar scene with another historic flood. As the waters have receded, I reflect on those first few days, notably the response and the resiliency.
Day 1: The torrential rains started early Aug. 12 and reports of the impact to clinics and team members filtered in. We opened our command center, a standard practice for an organization our size. Teams readied their plans. I was completely confident in the leaders throughout our system. We all understood the vital importance of being well connected.
Day 2: I couldn't believe the stories of devastation I was hearing. Still raining, water was everywhere. At 2:45 p.m., a hospital-wide emergency response was activated. I was humbled by the selflessness of team members, especially in our emergency department. Hurricanes have given us disaster experience, but this time we had little time to prepare ourselves and our teams. I checked on friends and colleagues. My family and home were fine. But so many people throughout the city were not.
Day 3: Stories of evacuations, rescues and families trapped in the floodwaters continued. Our freestanding ER in Livingston became an island in the submerged parish. At 9:45 p.m., four dialysis patients rescued from the flood needed transport to a dialysis center, and we were out of options. It was my privilege to personally drive them. I thought about my mom who had been a dialysis patient. I'm struck by the human condition of these strangers who needed help. Thousands in our city needed help; thousands responded.
Day 4: Our clinical staff of 700 worked and slept in alternating 12-hour shifts. Healthcare providers know this is their job in a crisis, but it's always an extraordinary commitment since many didn't know the fate of their own homes. Anxiety added to the stress while patient care remained the top priority—which is always the case. With three different helicopters, we reached our teams at Livingston: the Coast Guard transported our clinicians, sheriff's deputies took more team members, and our local medical transport provider brought patients back. One crew brought pizzas to the weary team on duty at the hospital. In this disaster, relief touched people in small but powerful ways.
Day 5: Response from our health system leadership, including mission, human resources and supply chain was a critical factor. John Finan, CEO of our parent, Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, and the sisters who sponsor our health ministry decided to give $1,000 to each team member whose primary residence was flooded—30% of our workforce. Our leaders brought their best thinking and hearts to decisions for staff, patients and the community.
Day 6: We opened our Team Member Resource Center for staff members at 7 a.m.; by 10 a.m., we had already taken 30 phone calls to help individuals navigate possible housing, transportation, and clean-up. We quickly realized how technology has transformed disaster response: social media and text messages enabled speedy connection, including our physicians organizing into volunteer teams at local shelters. Our clinics reopened quickly. Hundreds of patients were at each door with doctors ready to care for them.
Day 7: The number of people struggling with personal loss was substantial. Calls and grateful tears suggested we had done many of the right things to help. People asked how we were doing at the hospital, but our efforts were about something far beyond the hospital walls.
During disasters, hospitals are literal and symbolic pillars of strength and stability for communities. As leaders, we need to remember that our preparation and response help to shape the hope and healing we all need.