When Atrium Health's mobile hospital unit arrived into Burgaw, N.C., on Tuesday from its home-base in Charlotte, residents of the rural area had been without medical care for days in the wake of Hurricane Florence. They lined up for help even as the medical team was setting up in a Family Dollar parking lot.
The area's Pender Memorial Hospital, a critical access hospital, was evacuated ahead of the storm and remained closed because of flooding. The nearest open hospital sat at least 50 miles to the south in Wilmington, N.C., a city unreachable by ground transportation after rising floodwaters cut if off from the rest of the state.
Within 18 hours Atrium Health's Med-1 mobile hospital team of 32 physicians, nurses and other clinicians had treated more than 50 patients, many with chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes. Their conditions had been exacerbated by the stress of the hurricane, loss of electricity or homes and the lack of medical care. Others suffered minor injuries that turned major after becoming infected by unclean water and debris.
The Med-1 team sets up the mobile hospital. Residents of rural Burgaw, N.C., were without medical care for days after Hurricane Florence. (Atrium Health)
"We're seeing a lot of really sick people," said Dr. David Callaway, an emergency physician and the mobile hospital's medical director.
Collaboration with the state, supply chain partners and healthcare providers in areas less affected by the hurricane, like Atrium Health, has helped impacted hospitals get back to normal operations and serve their communities. By Tuesday, some hospitals were beginning to shift from an emergency response mindset to recovery mode.
While the high winds and torrential rain have subsided, North Carolina officials warned that floodwaters would continue to rise as rivers crested. At least 36 people had died in the Carolinas and Virginia because of the storm. On Wednesday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said 7,800 residents remained in shelters set up by the state, and 200,000 people still lacked power at home.
Hospitals prepared extensively for the hurricane by stocking up on fuel, water, food and medical supplies as part of emergency plans that had been tested and honed by past disasters.
Many had evacuated patients well enough to be moved to make room for the injured they expected to see after the storm.
Others had sheltered in place—their nurses, physicians, management and other essential staff working in shifts day after day to care for their communities. Once the winds subsided, hospitals worked with their suppliers to get additional food, water and medicine before flooding became worse.
"Our material management staff has worked nonstop making sure that we're in constant communication with our suppliers," said Raymond Leggett, CEO of CarolinaEast Health System in New Bern, N.C., where hundreds had been rescued from floodwaters. "We're in the business of pondering what ifs so we had other plans—plan B and plan C if they couldn't get in by truck, including using helicopters. We're going to write a lot of thank you notes."
According to Charlotte-based Premier, a group purchasing organization with more than 90 member healthcare facilities and 140 suppliers in states affected by the hurricane, there have been no confirmed supply disruptions tied to the storm, though there have been some logistical challenges with delivering supplies to the hospitals because of closed roads. In one case, Premier helped coordinate a helicopter delivery of food for New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington on Monday, a Premier spokeswoman said.
The helicopter filled with supplies for delivery to New Hanover Regional Medical Center. (Premier Inc.)
Beyond supplies, the biggest challenge for New Hanover, which owns Pender Memorial Hospital, is helping its staff get back into town so they can return to work, the system's spokeswoman said. About 1,800 physicians and staff sheltered and worked in shifts at New Hanover's main campus during the storm. North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday called for medical professionals to volunteer in the hurricane relief efforts.
Hospital leaders in North Carolina each stressed the commitment of their staff members during the hurricane. At Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton, N.C., 600 volunteered to stay at the hospital and its nearby nursing facility for several days working in 12-hour shifts, tending to the community's needs even as their own homes flooded.
The same was the case at CarolinaEast, where 300 employees remained at the hospital for 96 hours to care for patients and did "whatever we needed to do to make sure we continued to operate," Leggett said. "There's nobody better in a crisis than this staff."
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the date the Med-1 mobile hospital arrived in Burgaw, N.C.