Hurricane Michael: How Southwest Georgia Hospitals Responded

I’ve been in health care for nearly 30
years and here at Donalsonville Hospital. Never have I ever, ever seen an
event like this. I’ve heard of tornadoes hitting communities and seen those
communities and the path of destruction was horrific. It was a couple miles, a
mile wide, but never an event like this, where the path of destruction could be
as far wide as 20 to 25 miles and it stretches the entire length of our whole
county. The devastation is horrific. There are
homes that have been destroyed. There are trailers that have been just wadded up
and twisted, just like somebody picked up a Coca-Cola can and twisted it. I mean, we’re in that zone
where it’s not unusual for us to have bad weather several times a year,
but we were expecting a tropical storm at its worst up until about 24 hours
beforehand and then all of a sudden they started ratcheting up the
warning levels and you know, it wasn’t that long that we realized that it could
be a hurricane when it hit here. There was nobody in town that didn’t have any
trees down. That’s how bad it was. There’s trees everywhere. You know, cars
damaged, houses damaged, roof leaking. You know, there was just damage
everywhere. I don’t think Bainbridge will ever be the same. I mean it’s just, we’re
still looking at debris you know, a couple months later. On my farm, while I
moved the animals into safer pastures, we still lost a good number of animals. I never envisioned that so many trees
would be down. I lost over a hundred acres of pasture due to downed trees in
the incredible flooding that still remains out there. There are several
sites throughout our community where debris but the biggest one’s at the
airport. There’s just hundreds of yards of debris
many feet high, yards wide of debris that’s just been collected just in the
town. That’s not counting throughout the entire county. There are multiple sites
and the trucks are just continuously, seven days a week, all during daylight
hours, collecting materials on the side of the roads, and now it’s been two
months and these trucks continuously run day in and day out. Michael paid a little visit to Southwest
Georgia. 155-mile-an-hour sustained winds, not gusts. This was a 200-mile-wide
tornado that went across Georgia. The Region K includes 16 counties in
southwest Georgia. It’s extremely rural farming communities. Some of our
counties are populations as low as 5,000 So we go from a 90,000 to 100,000 area of metro area down to 5,000 or so. The Phoebe Putney
Healthcare System and the Archbold Healthcare System are our two main
providers in the coalition area. Phoebe Putney serves as the regional
coordinating hospital for Region K, which is all Southwest Georgia and part of our
responsibility is to help facilitate needs of other hospitals in times of
need. We were preparing days in advance because one of the fortunate things with
a hurricane is that you have time to plan and get things in place that with a
tornado, like we went through before, those are just sudden events. We began
getting very serious about preparation. That included us canceling some elective
activities and closing our clinics and offices so we actually mobilized
sleeping about 500 employees. And one of the things we did, as the Regional
Coordinating Hospital for Southwest Georgia, we went in and opened up an
event log on GHA911, which is really a messaging board for other
hospitals to share with us their status, what their needs may be and for us to be
able to try and help facilitate anything during that time.
GHA is very important to us because they have many resources that can help
us through a disaster and we knew that their resources were out there if we
needed staff or we needed physicians, if we needed to transfer patients we knew
that we could call on them in this event. It happened to be that we were going to
be involved as well and so we actually handed off our responsibility as a
Regional Coordinating Hospital. We were able to handoff command to Region I up
in Columbus and they knew what to do and if it hadn’t been for GHA being the host of
that to be a central clearinghouse we wouldn’t have had the communications.
So GHA has been instrumental in assisting facilities across the state of Georgia
in planning for emergencies such as this. It was actually several years ago, we had to
prepare for three days and look at Will we have enough oxygen? Will we have
enough water? How will you feed the staff members that you’re housing? Where are
you going to put the staff members you’re housing? It forced us to learn how to
develop plans. We set this facility up to house not just our employees during the
hurricane but their families and any other family members that were in their
homes. Remarkably, we had over 40 volunteers
throughout our facility that volunteered to come in and shelter in during the
entire event. We shut down all areas that could, like our OR and just planned to take
care of our ER patients and our med surg patients and of course
our OB/GYN patients. You know, it’s amazing to me because we had staff members
reaching out saying, you know, “I’m not scheduled to work for three days but I
know the storm’s coming. Can I come in and help? Do you have
somewhere for me to sleep?” They never once said, “I don’t want to do this,” “I’m
not gonna do this.” We didn’t have any of that. We made the call. We put the message out there. They said, “I’ll be there.” Somebody had live feed of a camera that
was on a restaurant down in Mexico Beach and we watched that restaurant just
disintegrate. I was standing in the front lobby at the hospital when the hurricane
hit and to see the shingles come off of the front of the hospital, it was like
somebody threw a deck of cards up. We were in winds that just didn’t seem like
they were gonna stop. We had rain that rained sideways. At one
point we were receiving 120, 125 mile an hour winds here. We’ve never seen
that before. We had staff members that were getting phone calls, you know, “Mom,
our house is gone. That tree’s gone through our home.” We heard some rocking and rolling going
up on the roof and the first thing that got affected was we lost power. We have
somewhere around 70 mechanical ventilator patients in this facility and
so those individuals were all safe. The generators came on just as we knew
that they would. Patients in the nursing home had moved to the central part of
the nursing home. They started to get a little panicky and you could see what
was going on outside. They were looking out the windows so we just started
playing the piano and decided to have a hurricane party in the midst of that to
kind of take their minds off of it. They kept their composure which made the
residents feel somewhat comfortable. They weren’t frantic. Everything on the east
side of the nursing home was getting water. The wind was blowing so hard that
it was coming around the seals of the windows. One of our residents was yelling
his window had blown out and there was water all over his room. Our maintenance
department, during the peak of the storm, literally went and measured the room, cut the plywood and installed the plywood in the patient’s room. I don’t think you can get
prepared, emergency wide, for this magnitude. It’s something I’ve never
seen before. We realized that we had lost a lot of our cell coverage inside so we
went up on top of one of the buildings to check those antennas and one of the
things I remember that night is walking out on that roof and just total darkness,
just pitch black no matter where you looked. The only thing I remember seeing
was the lights that Phoebe Putney and the lights of Proctor & Gamble. We’re
in the middle of the city. There should have been street lights on. There should
have been other lights in the city on, but there was nothing. We were on generator, and thankfully so,
because the community needed us. There are a lot of people in the community
that are dependent on oxygen and they have concentrators that require
electricity so that’s when the influx of community patients came in. Some came
with their concentrators; some did not. You know, the community expects, and they depend on, us to provide health care especially in time of need. Way off in
the background we heard noise. A volunteer fireman took it upon himself
to bring his own personal small excavator. He started clearing a path
with the help and assistance later of another gentleman that was a farmer.
No one asked; no one knew that he was going to do that.
He upon himself just did it. As we walked down the street and we
turned and looked back, you could see that the hospital and the nursing home had
power from our generator. There was a glowing light from this whole area.
People in our community said that was very comforting to them to see that, that
they knew we were okay. In the middle of a storm, the folks in Blakely, they found themselves in a unique situation where a
mother presented and was about to give birth.
They had a 27-week mom that was threatening to deliver and that’s in a
hospital that doesn’t have a nursery, much less a NICU. Basically, she said
she had walked over a mile from her house in labor and then from there the
police brought her to the emergency room in a patrol car because of all the debris and
trees. All the ground systems were inactive, so at that point in time we
were just hoping and praying for time. I mean they kept calling people
everywhere it’s like we can’t come oh I know this and I just started crying it’s
like it’s gonna be okay, you know. During the night we lost power. We had two
generators for the hospital. One of those generators went down. I got a call that
screaming for me, “Buck, get back in here!” So I ran back in the room and just as soon
as I walked back in the room and sat down the baby came out, delivered. She did
not cry when she first came out. That was another terrifying thing. And I looked
over and she was moving and kicking so I started feeling good. It was right at 14 inches,
1.9 pounds, very tiny. We had to resort to looking for air
transport so we actually called CHOA, Wolfson Children’s Hospital and UAB and
those air transport systems were grounded. So we had to make a decision to
send our team. We weren’t sure if we could go a block
or 10 miles or 10 feet at that point because it was still dark. So we waited
till about 7:45, 8:00 in the morning, sunlight. We probably made it 5 or 6
miles and we started seeing a lot of traffic coming our way, so we’re like
well, you know, we’ll probably not get much further. And we got there and the Georgia DOT was working westbound and he did let us know that there was a team
working eastbound so they were trying to meet in the middle and we sat around for
probably 30-45 minutes or so and the ladies with the NICU decided that they
weren’t waiting anymore. So I grabbed my chainsaw and we went walking and we
probably went between a mile-and-a-half and two half miles on foot. You know
every 30, 40 feet there were you know, high as you could see debris, trees
fall from both directions. We got through the debris and we had seen headlights so we knew we were getting close to the other team. And I was just like, “Hey, we
have a 27-week old baby we need to get to.” They hitched a ride with a guy from
Texas to the ER. I’d come in the emergency room with a chainsaw on my
shoulder and had a few strange looks, they looked at me. And I was like, “I’m not
crazy, I’m with them. I’m here to help.” I was so happy to see them; I was thanking them. I mean, they got right on the job and just took over from there. The infant by
that point was actually starting to struggle with with breathing. So they
stabilized the infant and then the question was, can we get the baby back
here? We were full. Our NICU was full at that time. So our team subsequently took
the infant from Blakely to the regional perinatal center at Piedmont Columbus. When I seen that baby and it was that long. I mean, seriously, it was the little bittiest
thing I’ve ever seen. And that made it all worthwhile.
With all that was going on, for things to go that well, it was really kind of a
miracle, a blessing. The team in Blakely I can’t give enough credit to. I think that
they they’re the heroes. Their transport team that had to cut down trees and
dodge power lines, those are the folks that are heroes. It’s just a cool story.
Again, it goes back to how three different organizations that are not
connected, where they’re not all part of the Phoebe System, but they were all connected at a higher level of taking care of the region, taking care of
community. We’ve got a great team here. They stepped
up and they they took care of this community. We do it every day and in
those moments of crisis I’m happy that our staff gets appreciated for what they
bring to the community.
You can’t say enough to thank them for what what they
do. No matter what we ask somebody to do during that time, they did it. You
can have a system set up, but at the end of the day it really requires folks to
have that kind of dedication. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, to get something where you make a difference in somebody’s life and that
makes it all worthwhile to me. It was a time that you didn’t really think that
folks would come together like they did, and they did. Patients have to have
somewhere to go and we’re here and we’re here to make sure they are taken care of.
Everything that we do here is purposeful, with intent. This is my hometown. I want
to take care of this community. It made me proud to be a part of the community
because you’re just not able to shake our little community. It’s indescribable; you can’t put words
to what happened here. They’re true heroes in every aspect.
My family always know that this is where I’m going to be if there’s a disaster,
because these are the family members that I have that need me. So no matter
what the disaster is I’ll be with these people and many of our staff members
feel the same way

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