People who go into emergency medicine—doctors, nurses, techs—most of us go into it with the ability to thrive in chaotic, hectic situations. After Sandy, the day-to-day moaning and groaning about the job disappeared and everyone put on their working hats because we knew we were going to be there for several days in a row.When it comes to disasters, emergency personnel are essential. More than anything, our preparation included clarifying our schedules. Everyone needed to know where they were going to be and where their colleagues would be.
The hospital administrators were amazing—they opened up the atrium, a space about half the size of a football field, to patients, their families and staff, and provided cots and a warm place for people to sleep. It was overcrowded, but most people were just happy to be somewhere that had heat. I’m always impressed by the job that a lot of the people I work with do, especially under these kinds of circumstances.
Clinic closings added to the patient load, but there was also a large population of people, mainly elderly, who needed electricity to administer their medications, or to use machines at night that help them breathe. I had a couple of patients who were displaced from Atlantic City and they were bused to shelters in New Brunswick.
One patient stands out in my mind. He was maybe 60, HIV positive and an ex-IV drug user who now works in a deli. He came in because he was short of breath. It turned out that he had pneumonia, which is concerning for someone like him. When we met, he was a super nice, sweet man. All he wanted was a hot meal because he hadn’t had one in three days. I told one of the nurses in emergency and she volunteered to help. Shortly afterward, the nurse told me that the same patient was about to walk out against medical advice. When I went back to see him he said, “I can’t eat his crap, there’s not even any meat,” it was a drastic change from the man that I had met just 30 minutes before. When I asked him what happened, he broke down and started crying hysterically. He had no idea about the state of his home and the shelter was closing that day.
“Everything I own is in two little bags,” he said. “I need all my medications. I need everything. If they close the shelter I’m going to lose it all. And how am I going to get back to Atlantic City if they bus everyone back and I’m in the hospital?”
He was in a very tough place, but through several phone calls back and forth to the shelter, in the midst of a very busy emergency room, the nurse and I were able to find a Red Cross volunteer willing to pick up his belongings and bring them to the hospital. Everyone came together for this guy. I know it sounds strange, but as an emergency room doctor you don’t usually get to help patients in that way.
The experience was stressful, but it brought staff members together because we’re a team—we’re a good team. Everyone understood the situation we were all in and everyone at the hospital was pretty wonderful under the circumstances. It was sweet. It’s one of those things that gives you hope.