The 'Woman's touch': How one Baton Rouge hospital went to work after the flood

On Friday, Aug. 12, severe thunderstorms approached Southern Louisiana. By Saturday, flooding began. By Monday, more than 10 rivers flooded in the state, eight of which did so at record levels. Among the tens of thousands of homes damaged or lost in the floods were 500 households belonging to employees of Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, one of the first women's specialty hospitals in the nation.

That Friday was a busy day for Woman's Hospital. When the rain came, providers were in the process of caring for more than 225 inpatients. When the flooding began on Saturday, the hospital activated its emergency command system and began to prepare for the next 72 hours. During that time, Woman's Hospital was nearly full with high-acuity patients and in the process of accepting patient transfers from other hospitals.

While the staff and leadership at Woman's are accustomed to persevering through natural disasters like hurricanes, which are typically preceded by ample warning, the severity of the flooding proved unpredictable.

"The first 48 hours were shocking, we've been through many disasters before. We dealt with the aftermath of Katrina, but this is being called a thousand year flood," Woman's CEO Terri Fontenot tells Becker's Hospital Review. "We knew there was going to be flooding, but we did not expect our hospital to flood and we certainly did not expect our employee's homes to flood that have never flooded before."

On Sunday, Aug. 14, roads leading to the hospital were flooded and the parking lots were filling with water, and flooding of the facility appeared imminent. Woman's executive team chose to cancel all elective surgeries and outpatient procedures for Monday.

Leaders then called upon the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to ensure protection of the hospital's most vulnerable patients, including more than 70 infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.

The National Guard mobilized to install a protective aqua dam around the hospital. Hospital visitors were asked to leave to conserve resources and leadership prepared to stay the night. By Monday, the dam instillation had finished and the hospital was protected from rising waters, but some employees could not get back to work due to road closures. Damage to cellular communication infrastructure rendered communication difficult.

"Cell phone service was unreliable. Some of our employees went unaccounted for a week," says Donna Bodin, Woman's Hospital's vice president who oversees human resources and employee services. "About 30 percent of workforce lost their homes or suffered other major losses or damages."

The leadership at Woman's Hospital had to find a way to take care of employees while simultaneously ensuring quality care for the hospital's patients. Physicians were asked to stay in house, human resources matched employees whose homes were lost or damaged with other staff willing and able to take them in. Leadership also established a disaster recovery leave of absence policy to provide time off to those who needed it. Additionally, vacation and sick leave were made immediately available, employees were able to donate paid time off to colleagues in need and human resources began hiring temporary emergency staff.

"When you have a disaster like this, it becomes clear what the mission is," says Ms. Fontenot. "The policy book gets put aside and we just do what we think is right. Executive leadership didn't want to leave. We just wanted our staff to know we are here with them and they can use us as a resource."

As the Baton Rouge community banded together to return life to some semblance of normalcy, more staff began returning to work. For them, work offered a respite from the chaos of the flood. To leadership, the dedication of the staff to the hospital and their vocation became more apparent than ever.

While the floodwaters have since receded, many Woman's employees remain displaced, though they continue to come into work and care for patients.

Ms. Bodin says the experience increased her already sturdy appreciation for the strength of employee's commitment to Woman's.

"Here we have what we like to call the Woman's touch," says Ms. Bodin. "It's a blend of compassion and quality care and it's something I'm very thankful to be a part of."

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