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 wherewe were and what we were doing when it happened. One event most of us will haveforever in our memory is where we were when we first heard of the Sept. 11, 2001disaster. To the New York healthcare heroes it is an experience that will stayalive in their memories and hearts for as long as they live.

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

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

Every department in the hospital shifted to disaster mode according to policyand began to fulfill their responsibilities. Each person began to move as fastas he or she could to support the needs of the ER as it prepared to receive thevictims. 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 ofpeople. Those with assigned duties in the ER responded to the call and began toflow in with their emergency equipment. In the meantime the nurses andphysicians 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 makeroom for the victims, " recalls Judy Dillworth, director of critical careand who was in charge of the ER that morning. "We coordinated with the ICUsto empty beds, anticipating a wave of people critically injured. We set up everybed 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 ateam, and everyone pulled together," noted Bernardo Castillo, a centralservice attendant. "We continued to work as a team with the ER staffproviding and assisting them with whatever supplies they needed," recallsGloria Gant, central service supervisor. The staff at the sterile processingarea began to process instrument sets as fast as they could in order to haveevery surgical instrument set ready for the emergency surgeries to come. VashtiThomas, a sterile processing instrument technician recalls, "We put ourfeelings aside even though we thought about our families."

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

One important aspect was maintaining order through the medical center. Thesecurity department secured the entrances to the hospital and coordinated theflow of people into the ER. Their priorities were to ensure the safety of thestaff on duty and all of those coming in for help, and to maintain order wherethere was chaos.

In the interim, those coordinating the effort at the NYU Command Centercontinued to organize a plan to conquer the difficulties of the hour. Most, ifnot all, of the telephone lines were down and there was no communication withanyone outside of the medical center. Technicians from the communicationsdepartment worked to ensure that the telephone lines were back in service. OurNYU-Downtown Hospital is the closest to the tragedy and received the majority ofthe injured; establishing communication was essential. They needed to besupported with supplies and staff in order to handle the emergency. Thecommunications team worked arduously to ensure the staff and our command centerwere able to communicate within the premises, with our network hospitals and thegovernment agencies coordinating the emergency.

As the day went on and victims with smoke inhalation continued to flow intothe ER, the respiratory therapy team was there to assist the physicians andprovide treatment. The injured were coming in dressed in a coat of ashes, havingmuch difficulty breathing. It was a devastating scene to watch. Service andteamwork did not stop when the victims' wounds were healed. As the injured weretreated and discharged from the ER the building services team were ready toprovide the extra linen, a clean scrub suit to the victims, and a cleanstretcher for the next patient. Once the victims' bodily injuries were treatedand they were discharged from the ER, social workers were ready to help healtheir emotional injuries. The team has worked tirelessly with the medical centerstaff and other workers throughout the city to help heal the scars of thistremendous tragedy.

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

It was a very disappointing and distressing experience since we only treated100 victims at our center. The desire to help more in order to alleviate thedestruction this tragedy caused and not being able to help more victims has lefta void in many healthcare workers' lives. It was a very stressful day for thehealthcare 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. Theyconcentrated on one goal: to help and heal the wounds of the victims, to carefor the hurt, to provide a service to those in need, to share their compassionwith those who were hurting. They were successful in their tasks throughout thistragedy 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 inNew York City. She has been an active member of IAHCSMM and the local NYCchapter for CS professionals.

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