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Dome - They Came. They Stayed. They Worked.

March 2010

They Came. They Stayed. They Worked.

By: Linell Smith
Date: March 2, 2010

Faced with huge, back-to-back storms, employees went above and beyond to care for patients.

Billings after the blizzard
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A view of Billings after the first of two blizzards in five days in February. Though many roads were closed, hundreds of Hopkins employees braved the elements. Others stayed put at various hospital locations till the worst was over.

While snow-weary Marylanders dug into piles of “hot wings” on the night of the Super Bowl, Amber Jefferson handled frantic calls for pumps that release pain medication, for lotion, bandages, bedpans, and almost anything else a Hopkins Hospital patient might need.

It was a 16-hour shift. The day before, as the snow piled higher and higher, the 23-year-old materials management worker had manned the phone for 23 hours straight. Somehow, her supervisors say, she maintained an upbeat, friendly and calm demeanor. When the snow finally stopped blowing, Jefferson had spent six nights at the hospital.

“We couldn’t let the department stop operating,” she says. “If the people in General Services didn’t show up, patients and doctors and nurses wouldn’t be able to eat, be moved around or receive other services they need.”

Jefferson was among thousands of nonclinical employees who worked long hours and mastered new tasks to make sure that the hospital ran smoothly during the week (Feb. 5–12) that brought 44 inches of snow. The unprecedented weather even set a new record for Hopkins’ emergency command center.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had to open the center more than once in a winter season,” says Howie Gwon, director of emergency management. “That makes us part of the history of the snowiest winter for Baltimore on record.”

Schools shut, businesses closed and so did the offices of the state and federal governments. Even mail delivery was halted on the storms’ worst days. But department leaders and the emergency management teams at Hopkins and its affiliated hospitals made sure that the streets and sidewalks were plowed, that the food was plentiful and hot, and that the clinical and surgical teams had all they needed for whatever medical emergencies came their way.

For the first time, according to Gwon, many staff members at the East Baltimore campus participated in a work “sleepover” that lasted as long as six nights for some. On Feb. 10—the night the second storm ended—more than 1,153 employees settled down on air mattresses, cots and couches in locations ranging from hospital offices, gyms and auditoriums to conference rooms throughout the hospital. Some departments even put up employees at nearby hotels, such as the Fairfield Inn at the Inner Harbor.

More than 75 employees tackled the harsh conditions, driving through snow-packed streets to pick up fellow workers. One intrepid driver was Kathy Schenkel, a nurse in neuro-critical care, who spent 16 hours straight navigating her Jeep, sometimes through whiteout conditions, to retrieve staff throughout the Baltimore area. Another was Erick Williams, manager of the hospital’s linen department. A Hopkins employee for the past 28 years, Williams also worked double shifts every day to help keep bed and bath linens, scrubs and patient apparel flowing smoothly to all who needed them. His own bed was a pile of blankets on the floor of his office underneath the Orleans Street Garage.

“It was a rough experience, but we kept all of our deliveries to all our inpatient and outpatient customers,” he says. “We maintained our full operations without any blemishes. Although we were short-staffed, everyone pulled together to get the job done.”

As far as inpatients were concerned—the hospital was at 82 percent of its capacity—services continued as usual.

Pediatric resident Melanie Nies was among those who faced the snow to keep their shifts at the hospital. Nies, who worked in the neonatal intensive care unit, was impressed by how “normal” her shifts proved.

“People were really committed not only to patient care but to each other, and made sure people had relief if they needed it,” she says. “Many interns and residents stayed well past their shifts to help cover others who had a hard time getting in.”

Mark Bittle, vice president of ambulatory services for Johns Hopkins Medicine, says that most outpatient clinics were also open at some point during the second storm, which occurred during the work week.

Take, for instance, the Community Psychiatry Program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Patty Daiger, an office supervisor, had spent the previous weekend—her 66th birthday—clearing the first storm from the sidewalk of her Dundalk rowhouse and rescuing her truck from a mountain left by the snowplow. As flakes began falling again, she put place-saver storage totes in her parking space and headed off to work, just as she had for the past 21 years.

She was surprised to discover that someone else had beat her to the office. Although it took twice as long as usual, office assistant Cordelia Byrd walked to work through the snow from her East Baltimore home. When she arrived at the clinic in Bayview’s East Tower Building, her pants were soaking wet and her knee-high Timberlands weren’t much better. The security guards shook their heads in amazement.

“I told them, we’re never closed,” Byrd recalls. That morning, she and Daiger took many calls from anxious patients, helping several to get refills of their medication.

“I know I’m not a doctor or a therapist, but at least I can answer questions and point someone in the right direction,” Byrd says. “If I were out of medicine and didn’t know which way to turn, I’d want someone to be there for me.”

Punam Patel, manager of the outpatient pharmacy at Howard County General Hospital, drove to work in her husband’s SUV as the blizzard was beginning. She informed the hospital that the pharmacy was open, just in case there was a sudden need.

There was. A Howard County woman needed to refill her grandson’s antiseizure medication, but the retail pharmacies were closed. The Hopkins pharmacist not only filled her order but also stayed open until 5 p.m., when she cautiously made her way to a hotel in Columbia, followed closely by a county snow plow.

Chief among Hopkins’ snow warriors were its snow movers. At Hopkins Hospital, a crew of 18 carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and others—the “Snowmageddon Team”—drove  plows and wielded blowers and shovels to maintain access to the hospital. With the help of an outside contractor, the hospital also cleared and disposed of all the snow from major streets bordering the hospital as well as the drifts that collected on the helipad and the canopy above the main entrance.

“We had to keep it going 24/7,” says Bob Kuhn, assistant director of facilities. “Our guys worked 16-hour shifts and would only lie down four hours at a time.”

Among the first in the city given permission to dump mountains of snow in the harbor, the Hopkins fleet of trucks began lumbering down Broadway the day after the first storm and continued for more than a week.

“In any emergency, the thing that’s most rewarding is seeing how many people really care about Hopkins and their jobs and their departments,” Gwon says. “The majority of the people really come through for you.”

Even in situations that are totally unanticipated. Who’d have guessed, for instance, that Ken Grant, vice president for general services, would need to supply $2,000 from the food retail cash account to keep the snow plows fueled when the gas station credit card machines stopped working? Or that Food Services Director Leo Dorsey and his catering team could rustle up 469 bag lunches for storm workers at the Baltimore City Emergency Operations Center?

The hospital’s food staff was also able to meet all of its patient requests because of dedicated workers like LaToya Clowney.

Clowney usually works on the line that assembles trays of food for patients. This time, working extra shifts with others, she also transported the food to the hospital units. After walking 15 blocks to the hospital, the 19-year-old East Baltimore woman spent six nights sleeping in Turner Concourse. It was her longest time away from home since a childhood trip to North Carolina.

“This snowstorm was a good experience,” she says. “I will always remember how we were all sticking together and working like a team.”