Infection Control Today - 02/2002: The NYC Healthcare Heroes

The NYC Healthcare Heroes

By Mary Olivera, BA, MS

Most of us have memories of a historic event and can describe exactly where we were and what we were doing when it happened. One event most of us will have forever in our memory is where we were when we first heard of the Sept. 11, 2001 disaster. To the New York healthcare heroes it is an experience that will stay alive in their memories and hearts for as long as they live.

Tuesday, Sept.11 began as usual at New York University Medical Center in New York City. A busy emergency room nurse manager was coordinating with various departments to prepare the beds needed to admit patients. Getting them from the ER to the designated areas was the priority of the hour. It seemed like a normal day, but within seconds priorities changed to accommodate an unusual event that we had all prepared for, but never thought were going to experience.

The news of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center towers began to spread throughout the medical center, the city, and the country. Rumors of thousands of injured people began to dissipate and anxiety began to fill the minds of the staff. Everyone wondered what was happening outside the medical center's walls. Staff who knew people working at the towers wondered about their safety. However, a sense of preparedness and duty overcame every feeling the staff was experiencing. Minutes later the NYU public announcement systems called for a Code 1000 and everything turned into a scene taken out of an episode of the series "ER."

Every department in the hospital shifted to disaster mode according to policy and began to fulfill their responsibilities. Each person began to move as fast as he or she could to support the needs of the ER as it prepared to receive the victims. In everyone's minds were the thousands of people who worked at the WTC, the number of people injured, and the ability to handle the massive inflow of people. Those with assigned duties in the ER responded to the call and began to flow in with their emergency equipment. In the meantime the nurses and physicians were busy assessing the current status of patients already in the ER.

"We began to assess and discharge patients as fast as we could to make room for the victims, " recalls Judy Dillworth, director of critical care and who was in charge of the ER that morning. "We coordinated with the ICUs to empty beds, anticipating a wave of people critically injured. We set up every bed in the ER and then waited."

Simultaneously, other departments were also responding to the disaster call. "We went to the ER to bring the emergency supplies cart; we all worked as a team, and everyone pulled together," noted Bernardo Castillo, a central service attendant. "We continued to work as a team with the ER staff providing and assisting them with whatever supplies they needed," recalls Gloria Gant, central service supervisor. The staff at the sterile processing area began to process instrument sets as fast as they could in order to have every surgical instrument set ready for the emergency surgeries to come. Vashti Thomas, a sterile processing instrument technician recalls, "We put our feelings aside even though we thought about our families."

Anticipating the need for emergency surgeries the operating room coordinated with every area in order to be ready to receive victims. All elective surgical procedures were cancelled and each person in the operating room shifted to accommodate the disaster victims. "We had every operating room set up and ready to go," recalls Anna Thiele, director of operating room services.

One important aspect was maintaining order through the medical center. The security department secured the entrances to the hospital and coordinated the flow of people into the ER. Their priorities were to ensure the safety of the staff on duty and all of those coming in for help, and to maintain order where there was chaos.

In the interim, those coordinating the effort at the NYU Command Center continued to organize a plan to conquer the difficulties of the hour. Most, if not all, of the telephone lines were down and there was no communication with anyone outside of the medical center. Technicians from the communications department worked to ensure that the telephone lines were back in service. Our NYU-Downtown Hospital is the closest to the tragedy and received the majority of the injured; establishing communication was essential. They needed to be supported with supplies and staff in order to handle the emergency. The communications team worked arduously to ensure the staff and our command center were able to communicate within the premises, with our network hospitals and the government agencies coordinating the emergency.

As the day went on and victims with smoke inhalation continued to flow into the ER, the respiratory therapy team was there to assist the physicians and provide treatment. The injured were coming in dressed in a coat of ashes, having much difficulty breathing. It was a devastating scene to watch. Service and teamwork did not stop when the victims' wounds were healed. As the injured were treated and discharged from the ER the building services team were ready to provide the extra linen, a clean scrub suit to the victims, and a clean stretcher for the next patient. Once the victims' bodily injuries were treated and they were discharged from the ER, social workers were ready to help heal their emotional injuries. The team has worked tirelessly with the medical center staff and other workers throughout the city to help heal the scars of this tremendous tragedy.

We did not receive the thousands of people we expected, but those who came into our ER received the best treatment by our nurses, physicians, and support staff. Healing their bodies and comforting them emotionally was only part of our mission during this tragedy. Many of them received spiritual counsel to feed their souls, and our many other departments provided them with an abundance of services. Our food service department provided meals for all of those receiving treatment, the medical center's staff and those working at the office of the medical examiner.

It was a very disappointing and distressing experience since we only treated 100 victims at our center. The desire to help more in order to alleviate the destruction this tragedy caused and not being able to help more victims has left a void in many healthcare workers' lives. It was a very stressful day for the healthcare heroes at NYU Medical Center, a day full of anxiety, grief, and pain. In spite of this they held together as a team to complete this task. They concentrated on one goal: to help and heal the wounds of the victims, to care for the hurt, to provide a service to those in need, to share their compassion with those who were hurting. They were successful in their tasks throughout this tragedy because they worked as a team. These are the NY healthcare heroes.

Mary Olivera, BA, MS, is the central service manager at NYU Medical Center in New York City. She has been an active member of IAHCSMM and the local NYC chapter for CS professionals.

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