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Hospitals relied on generators to keep running after storm

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As in most hospitals, the phones at Summersville Memorial Hospital are constantly ringing but calls quit coming in abruptly after the June 29 storm.

The 75-mile-per-hour winds had knocked out the Nicholas County hospital's landlines and some local cellphone towers.

"Communication was our biggest barrier because we were not able to get a hold of physicians or patients. No one could call in or out," said Deborah Hill, chief executive officer of Summersville Memorial. "The biggest problem was our inability to communicate with the public. We were having to send police to patients' houses if they needed us."

Telephones started buzzing again at the hospital after the military donated phone lines, Hill said.

Summersville and other hospitals throughout the state were hit hard by the storm, Hill said. 

The hospital lost power from 7:30 p.m. June 29 until 3 p.m. the next day, Hill said. Generators kicked on to keep the lights and lifesaving machines running.

The storm, known as a derecho, traveled close to 700 miles in 10 hours, devastating 10 states and leaving more than 4.3 million customers without electric service.

It flipped an air conditioning unit over on Summersville Memorial's roof. The destruction included several holes in the roof, which were temporarily patched. Some rooms couldn't be used because they didn't have air conditioning.

Air conditioning hooked to a generator kept the main area of the hospital cool, but patients relied on fans in the Extended Care Services, where nursing home care is provided. The unit is in an older part of the building, Hill said.

"With the heat, it was very taxing on the generators to keep the folks cool," Hill said. "In a situation like this, when the heat level is high, we went into a hydration mode and passed out water."

Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital's CEO Kevin Stalnaker said the hospital did not have air conditioning the night of the storm.

The 60 hours the Weston-based hospital ran on generators was the longest amount of time it had ever depended on generators for power, he said.

Some outpatient procedures were canceled Monday but most patients were not affected by the storm, Stalnaker said.

At Summersville Memorial, about five elderly people who live in the community and were not patients at the hospital slept on cots in the hospital's large activity room until the Monday after the storm. They relied on the hospital's power to plug in personal oxygen tanks because they didn't have electricity at home.

Hill said some of the high-level diagnostic equipment -- such as CT and MRI scanners -- were not powered because "a power fluctuation could too easily kill" the equipment, she said. Patients who needed CAT scans or MRIs performed were transferred to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown or Charleston Area Medical Center.

Receiving patients transported from other hospitals was the only adjustment CAMC witnessed, spokesman Dale Witte said.

CAMC did not lose electricity or water.

"The only thing anybody at the hospital would have noticed is that they would have spent a longer time in the ER because of the larger number of patients coming in from other facilities," Witte said.

Thomas Memorial Hospital relied on its generators for several hours until power was restored, said Paige Johnson, director of marketing and public relations.

Johnson considered the South Charleston hospital "extremely lucky in the fact that we were able to run as normal as possible," she said.

Power at Cabell Huntington Hospital was back on by 10 a.m. Saturday after the Friday evening storm. The hospital used generator power when the electric service was out.

"During the outage, our staff took precautions to protect our patients and to provide the best possible care during a challenging time," hospital spokesman Charles Shumaker said in a prepared statement. "Some of our most critical patients were transferred to other medical facilities throughout the region because of concerns about the rising temperatures, and we appreciate our health-care neighbors for assisting us throughout the outage."

At Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital, a large generator powered the intensive care unit and other critical areas of the hospital, said spokesman Ted Weigel.

The generator didn't power the air conditioners, so the hospital's staff moved patients to a floor with window-unit air conditioners to keep them cool, Weigel said.

The hospital's medical staff came in, some without being scheduled to work, to help discharge patients who were healthy enough to leave in order to give space in rooms with air conditioning to patients who were more ill, he said.

Some workers stayed late when their replacements couldn't make it in on time, he said. Much of the staff didn't have electric power in their own homes.

"One thing that stood out to me was people coming in to take care of patients," he said, adding that cell service was out for much of the staff. "They still knew they needed to come to the hospital. It was just a given that people needed to come in."

Extra administrative staff filled in for employees who couldn't make it to work because they didn't have enough gasoline to drive to Summersville Memorial, Hill said. Only two gas stations in Nicholas County could pump gas at the time, Hill said, and with up to a four-hour wait to get gas, some staff couldn't get to work.

During the storm itself, patients were taken to the hallways and away from windows, Weigel said.

"We were very lucky in that regard," he said.

Weigel said the Beckley hospital has been through power failures before. Hospitals are not immune to outages, they're just required to be prepared for them.

"You've got to have power," Wiegel said. "You can never go dark. The second the power fails, the generator kicks in. The departments that need power don't miss [it]."

The hospital had full electrical power by Saturday evening, he said.

"I assure you, it was a huge relief," he said.

At the state's psychiatric hospitals, Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington and William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston, workers used generators to keep services going during the power outages. Both hospitals had power fully restored by Wednesday, said John Law, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Resources.

"We did have some trouble at both," Law said. "Using generators, we were able to keep services going, but the A/C was not on the whole time -- particularly at Sharpe."

Some patients were transferred to other facilities, Law said.

"It got hot a couple of times, but we had folks working around the clock to keep everything moving," he said. "It was pretty tiring for everybody."

A Sharpe hospital employee who asked to remain anonymous said while the hospital was on a generator, there was no hot water or air conditioning and little light. At one point the hospital did not have power at all, while workers tried to get the generators running, she said.

Law said the hospital may have not had power during a transition to generator power but otherwise should have some power. Law said the generators weren't always running at full power, "but we did have power and kept things going."

The employee said the hospital's patients suffered.

"[They suffered] from heat," she said. "Being in a facility where you're locked in with no fresh air coming in, that causes hardship on them and makes them irritable.

"They were bored," she added. "...We would take them outside for fresh air but there was nothing for them to do. No classes, no rec halls."

The National Guard was at the facility, providing meals for patients during the outage, she said.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113. Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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