Inside the Bellevue Evacuation – One Resident’s Story
As the storm raged outside, I sat in my relatively unscathed apartment and neighborhood in Brooklyn watching and reading in horror as one catastrophe after another fell upon the medical center where I had spent the past three-plus years working and learning.
First, NYU-Tisch Hospital was evacuated emergently as the storm surge flooded the basement and the backup generators failed. Then, before NYU’s email system went dark, I learned that the research animal facilities were compromised. I pictured years of hard work and numerous experiments on the verge of breakthrough going down the drain. Next, I learned that Bellevue was running on backup generators and was initiating a partial evacuation.
Bellevue is the heart and soul of the NYU psychiatry residency program. A public hospital with over 300 psychiatric beds and one of the busiest psychiatric emergency rooms, it provides care for some of the sickest, most disadvantaged people in the city, country and world.
Many of us choose the program largely because of Bellevue, and through our training, grow to love it and the service it provides in a deep and complex way.
So when I received an email from one of our chief residents on Tuesday morning asking for residents to come in and help out, I barely left time to brush my teeth. The scene that I encountered when I arrived was surreal. The hallways were dark and eerily quiet. The National Guard was everywhere, and the smell of the generator diesel hung pungently in the air. It was one of those moments when life imitates fiction, and it felt like I was living out some sort of post-apocalyptic television plot.
It quickly became clear that the main task was to let the administrators and physician leadership figure out what needed to get done, while trying to keep the hospital functioning at a safe level and get as many patients out as possible. For the heroic staff present during the hurricane, this meant creating a human chain from the ground to the thirteenth floor to pass fuel up to the generators before the National Guard arrived to take over the task.
As Tuesday turned into Wednesday (many of us lost track), psychiatric administrators and staff worked furiously to get patients discharged or transferred. It seemed like I saw Bellevue’s director of psychiatry every time I turned around, her demeanor somehow as sweet and openly caring as ever. I worry that the pregnant director of consultation liaison psychiatry did not leave or even rest for days as she helped coordinate the safe transfer of hundreds of patients who could not be safely discharged to other local hospitals.
After the official evacuation order was announced that Wednesday afternoon, the pace of the work picked up. We had to get everyone transferred by Thursday at noon. The National Guard showed up to mass-evacuate a unit just as we were signing the very last piece of paperwork.
This experience left me with many lessons. I have come to respect my supervisors and colleagues more than I could ever imagine. I have also been reminded of the vital importance and value of rigorous, intensive clinical training – training that prepares you for anything in clinical work and, to a certain extent, in life.
Finally, I can’t help but strike a bit of a political note. This disaster and response reminded me that how we choose to value each other and work together as a society matters in a profound way. Bellevue is a public hospital, funded with taxpayer money, with a mission to take care of all comers, regardless of class, insurance, race, gender, sexual orientation, or immigration status. If Bellevue didn’t exist, far fewer patients in New York City (particular psychiatric patients) would have access to the skills, dedication, and passion of so many talented healthcare workers.
And Bellevue would not have been able to safely evacuate all of its patients over a series of a few days without the coordinated effort of the local, state, and federal governments, including the National Guard. In the national discussion about the size and role of government, I hope that we can be rational and intelligent about what government actually does and whatthe human costs of drastic cuts would be, especially as our country confronts multiple colossal problems including the increasing effects of climate change.