Rising Above Hurricane Sandy: Q&A With Hackensack University Health Network President and CEO Robert C. Garrett

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Hurricane Sandy put many of the country's mid-Atlantic hospitals to the test this past week. Hospitals did their best to prepare for the category 1 storm and deployed their disaster plans, but nature put even the best planning to the test. Hospitals were forced to adapt to unforeseen situations, such as unprecedented flooding and back-up generator failures.

The Obama administration declared a public health emergency for New York and New Jersey today, nearly four days after the storm. HHS is deploying teams of medical professionals from around the country to assist hurricane victims in both states. So far, Hurricane Sandy has killed more than 90 people in the U.S., with roughly 41 of those deaths in the New York City area.

Hackensack University Medical Center is the only one in New Jersey to have a mobile satellite emergency department.Bob Garrett is the president and CEO of Hackensack (N.J.) University Health Network and Hackensack University Medical Center, located in an inner suburb of New York City. HackensackUMC began to prepare for Sandy a week before the storm hit. "We had a delivery of fuel for our diesel generators well in advance of the storm. So in case we had to remain on a generator for several days, we were prepared," he says. The hospital also ensured it was adequately supplied with food, water and medications well before Sandy's surge hit.

HackensackUMC deployed its disaster plan Monday, setting up a 24-hour command center. When Sandy made landfall that evening, the hospital's surrounding city experienced flooding as the Hackensack River overflowed. Fortunately, HackensackUMC's facilities avoided the deluge. HackensackUMC lost power at roughly 6 p.m. Monday, but was able to retain power on its emergency generator for days afterward.

Along with its emergency generator, HackensackUMC also has a back-up generator for patient care sites so patients and providers can still utilize operating rooms, cardiac catheter labs, ICUs and medical, surgical and children's services.

Although HackensackUMC was able to retain power and operations, its space and staff were put to the test when a neighboring hospital called for help. "One of our biggest challenges was Monday evening, when we got a call from one of our neighboring hospitals, Palisades Medical Center [in North Bergen, N.J.], with which we're affiliated," says Mr. Garrett. Palisades, which is located off the Hudson River, was flooding badly. The hospital's CEO called Mr. Garrett and said it needed to evacuate in conjunction with the National Guard.

"Our team operated magnificently. Even though we were full here, we were able to accommodate most of their patients. [We transferred] over 60 patients in the night and into the morning. We actually had to empty out our observation unit and relocate those patients to make room for incoming patients." Forty-three of those transferred patients remained at HackensackUMC while the other 17 were transferred to other facilities.

HackensackUMC has also shared another valuable resource in the storm's aftermath. The hospital is the only one in New Jersey to have a mobile satellite emergency department, which basically functions as a hospital on wheels. That vehicle has been deployed throughout the state to help various counties and hospitals that are overwhelmed with patients. A baby was even delivered in the mobile ED in the middle of the storm, according to Mr. Garrett.

Hackensack University Medical Center leaders meet in the mobile hospital."I'm also told that the state is monitoring the situation, and we will probably have an additional [mobile ED] deployment before the end of the day. I'm proud that we not only responded so well to the storm as far as our operations, but we were able to help others in the state and communities that we don't serve [directly]," says Mr. Garrett.

Mr. Garrett stayed at HackensackUMC’s main hospital facility from Monday morning through Tuesday night, and has remained visible since. "I was between the command center and making rounds through patient care units to ensure everybody knew they had the support of leadership, and to assess if there were any special needs," he says. "I've been all over, including out by the MSED. When patients were transferred from Palisades, we were out there in the driveway of the Emergency Trauma Center, all helping to receive those patients."

Currently, the hospital is facing a few major challenges — one being a statewide shortage of fuel. "There are lines for gas that stretch miles long," said Mr. Garrett. "One challenge is making sure not only that our ED team has fuel for ambulances and vehicles, but also that our personnel can get to and from work."

The other setback is the loss of power throughout the state and how that is affecting patient discharges. "It's hard for patients to go home without power," says Mr. Garrett. "They don't have heat, and cold weather is expected this weekend. That's a challenge right now. But our mission is to help our region, and we'll continue to reach out and help where possible."


More Articles on Hurricane Sandy:

Why Did NYU Langone's Generators Fail During Hurricane Sandy?
New York City Hospitals Take in Patients Evacuated From NYU Langone
Bellevue Hospital in NYC Evacuates Remaining 375 Patients

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