In A Houston Emergency Room, It Was A Week Like No Other

Sep 2, 2017
Originally published on September 2, 2017 8:47 am

St. Joseph Medical Center is downtown Houston's only hospital, located just down the street from the convention center where thousands of evacuees have been staying since Harvey hit.

As of Friday, some doctors and nurses have been on the clock for almost a full week.

When you're working in an ER during a major natural disaster, nothing is routine. Trent Tankersley, director of emergency services at St. Joseph Medical Center, describes one tense situation after another in the hospital this week.

"We had a lady who the only vehicle heavy enough and strong enough to get to her through the floodwaters was a dump truck. She was pregnant. She was in labor. She was brought to the hospital in the dump bed of a dump truck, soaking wet.

"As we were getting her over to the women's building to get taken care of, we had a trauma come in. Shortly after that, we had a young man [who] came in that was having a stroke."

Tankersley showed up to work Saturday, and hasn't had what you'd consider "a break" since.

"Finally got to go home last night for a couple hours and do some laundry and then came right back. So it's been an interesting five or six days."

Some staff haven't been home since before Harvey struck

Kristen Benjamin, an associate chief nursing officer, has been right beside Tankersley.

"I think we're all working on adrenaline right now. We're working shift by shift. Some people are doing 15-, 16-hour shifts. We let them go off and sleep. They come back in."

They've seen more than 600 patients in the first five days. At times, they saw more patients in a few hours than they usually would in a whole day.

Many staffers have been stuck at the hospital, with no clear path to their homes. As floodwaters recede, their coworkers can finally come back.

"We're going to start transitioning staff out to get home so that they can check on their homes," Benjamin says. "Because some of them don't even know what's happening at their house right now because they haven't been home since Friday. So I don't even really have an idea if their house has been flooded or not."

His first day working in the ER

Among those staffing the ER are doctors from other departments pitching in, and even medical students, like Diana Johnson. She and her classmates are using a Google spreadsheet to organize shifts to help.

She's in her third year at Houston's McGovern Medical school. She's assisting Dr. Winston Watkins, an internist on his first day in the ER.

"One of the first patients that came in happened to be one of my own patients from my practice, and he came in with his foot hurting," he says."So Diana evaluated him and it turns out he has gangrene of his right fourth toe. And so we're going to admit him to the hospital."

"Some of them don't even know what's happening at their house right now because they haven't been home since Friday."

His house is underwater

Nurse Aaron Padron says he's never seen such a wide range of emotions in the ER.

"A lot of laughter crying yelling, tears," he says. "People that you work with you think that wouldn't crack just put their head in their hands and take a second to cry to themselves, or not to themselves, and wipe away the tears and get back to work."

He's been working here for most of the last week, except Saturday night.

"I went home on Saturday to sort of rescue my family before the floods got too high for me to get in or out," he says. "And then I came back Sunday and I've been working and sleeping here ever since."

Neighbors say his house is underwater. He says several others working in the ER saw their homes flooded. In a way, he says, it's all been a transformational experience.

"I think times of crisis, in times of emergency, in times of stress really have a way to bring people together and create a lot of camaraderie and really can push people to excel at what they do," he says.

Once reinforcements come in, he'll be able to rotate off his shift and find out just how much his family lost.

Copyright 2017 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

St. Joseph Medical Center is the only hospital in the heart of Houston's downtown. It is just down the street from the convention center where thousands of evacuees have been staying since Hurricane Harvey hit. From member station KERA, Rachel Osier Lindley reports that some doctors and nurses were on the clock for almost the entire week.

RACHEL OSIER LINDLEY, BYLINE: When you're working in an ER during a major natural disaster, nothing is routine.

TRENT TANKERSLEY: We had a lady who the only vehicle heavy enough and strong enough to get to her through the floodwaters was a dump truck. She was pregnant. She was in labor. She was brought to the hospital in the dump bed of a dump truck, soaking wet.

OSIER LINDLEY: Trent Tankersley is the director of emergency services at St. Joseph Medical Center.

TANKERSLEY: As we were getting her over to the women's building to get taken care of, we had a trauma come in. Shortly after that, we had a young man - came in that was having a stroke.

OSIER LINDLEY: And on and on. Tankersley showed up to work on the Saturday the rain started and hasn't had what you'd consider a break since.

TANKERSLEY: I finally got to go home last night for a couple hours and do some laundry and then came right back. So it's been an interesting five or six days.

KRISTEN BENJAMIN: Well, I think we're all working on adrenaline right now.

OSIER LINDLEY: Kristen Benjamin, an associate chief nursing officer, has been right beside him.

BENJAMIN: Some people are doing 15, 16-hour shifts. We let them go off and sleep. They come back in.

OSIER LINDLEY: They saw more than 600 patients in the first five days alone. At times, they saw more people in a few hours than they usually would in a whole day. Many staffers were stuck at the hospital with no clear path to their homes. As floodwaters recede, their co-workers can finally come back.

BENJAMIN: And so we're going to start transitioning staff out to get home so that they can check on their homes. Because some of them don't even know what's happening at their house right now because they haven't been home since Friday. So they don't even really have an idea if their house has been flooded or not.

OSIER LINDLEY: Among those staffing the ER today are doctors from other departments pitching in and even med students like Diana Johnson.

DIANA JOHNSON: Me and my classmates - someone created a Google spreadsheet. And we all signed up, and now we're here.

OSIER LINDLEY: She's in her third year at Houston's McGovern Medical School. She's assisting Dr. Winston Watkins, an internist. It's his first day in the emergency room.

WINSTON WATKINS: And actually, one of the first patients that came in happened to be one of my own patients from my practice. And he came in with his - foot was hurting. So Diana here went in, evaluated him. It turns out, he has gangrene of his right fourth toe. And so we're going to admit him to the hospital. Are you doing OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm right.

WATKINS: You're OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm here.

WATKINS: Nurse Aaron Pedron says he's never seen such a wide range of emotions in the ER.

AARON PEDRON: A lot of laughter, crying, yelling, tears. You know, people that you work with that you think that wouldn't crack, you know, just put their head in their hands and take a second to cry to themselves or not to themselves and wipe away the tears and get back to work.

OSIER LINDLEY: He's been working here for most of the last week.

PEDRON: I went home on Saturday to rescue my family before the floods got too high for me to get in or out. And then I came back Sunday. And I have been working and sleeping here ever since.

OSIER LINDLEY: His house flooded. Several others working in the ER saw their homes flooded, too. He says it's all been a transformational experience.

PEDRON: I think times of crisis and times of emergency and times of stress really have a way to bring people together and create a lot of camaraderie and really can push people to excel at what they do.

OSIER LINDLEY: Once reinforcements come in, he can rotate off his shift and find out just how much his family lost. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Osier Lindley in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.