Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gerald O'Malley, DO: Philadelphia ER in the recent snowstorms

During the recent snowstorms in Philadelphia, the ER staff was sequestered for about 36 hours as part of the emergency disaster planning. Being required to stay at work caring for strangers while your own family is at home in the middle of the worst snowstorm in history, in some cases with no electricity, should bring out the worst in most people — but ER people are a strange breed.

Throughout Wednesday afternoon, as the blizzard progressed and the blanket of snow became thicker and heavier, nurses, techs, and doctors straggled in and arrived early, to be sure that they could make it in for their night shift. The mood was one of genial complaining and fatalistic good humor.
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“What are all these drug addicts doing here?”

“The methadone clinic across the street is closed. They put a sign on the door to go the ER. They came here for their methadone and now they can’t get home.”

“Can’t we stick them all in one room - the waiting room for instance - instead of having them lying around underfoot?”

The ER staff cared for the patients and paramedics that managed to make it into the ER and passed the downtime having snowball fights in the parking lot and using cafeteria trays as makeshift toboggans to slide down the snow-covered concrete steps of the hospital. Those that brought food shared it with their colleagues and patients and the rest ate whatever the cafeteria served up. The cafeteria stayed open all night serving up hamburgers and cheesesteaks while the salads got soggy. The staff worked and slept in shifts, finding an empty gurney wherever one was available.

Nurses, techs, and residents that couldn’t sleep entertained each other by gossiping and telling stories or watching TV (the most common request from the staff after the storm was that they wanted the hospital to provide Cinemax for the TV in the lounge for the next blizzard).

As the night progressed and the general volume decreased, conversations became hushed and more intimate. The wee hours of the cold night led to the revelation that You-know-who and So-and-so hooked up at the holiday party and What’s-his-name’s son is back in jail. We also learned that my colleague (that I’ve been working with for three years) turned down a music scholarship to Julliard to take on the burden of medical school debt, and two of our nurses were in Haiti helping with the relief effort.

Thursday morning arrived brilliantly and the whole city seemed like it was shining from the ground up. Every hard surface was nestled in a soft white blanket of silence. It was beautiful. Relief workers began to straggle in and tired nurses, techs, and residents were allowed to leave in a reverse-seniority order throughout the day.

During the winter of ’94-’95 there were several severe ice storms that crippled Philadelphia and left us stranded overnight several times. It’s funny how the long snowy day’s journey through the night always seems worse when you are actually living it. Some of my fondest memories of residency were those nights that we were trapped in the ER by our jobs and our duties. I suspect that this blizzard of 2010 will provide fond memories for another generation of residents and interns, although they probably won’t realize it for awhile.

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