As the hurricane unleashed its fury, New Hanover Regional Medical Center staff worked tirelessly and passionately to help the entire community survive and endure. We want to honor them as hurricane heroes.
On the evening of Sept. 12, more than 1,800 staff, physicians and advanced-care providers arrived at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in advance of Hurricane Florence. Like many in our community, they had left their homes not knowing what they would find when they returned. They secured what they could, then, instead of evacuating town, they embraced their loved ones, said their goodbyes, and came to work.
They came to serve at NHRMC during the storm because they are committed to a mission that calls on its champions to put their own needs aside, confront their fears in moments of crisis, and focus on helping their community endure in challenging times.
We want the members of our community to know about this amazing team of individuals, diverse in every way imaginable, but alike in their willingness to serve. We are fortunate to work with them every day. But it’s in times of crisis that you see just how impressive they are.
Team Prepares for the Long Days Ahead
The teamwork was evident from the beginning: Those reporting for storm duty came prepared to stay. They knew it could be several days before it would be safe for their colleagues on the post-storm team to relieve them, but they were ready.
Food for more than 150,000 meals was stocked and ready to be prepared. Sleeping spaces had been set up, air mattresses inflated, and the night shift got to work as the day shift rested and prepared to work the following day.
Many on the NHRMC storm team had slept at the hospital before. Any time the roads in our region become unsafe, NHRMC shelters in place to ensure enough staff are on site to care for patients 24 hours a day until conditions improve. While one shift works, the other shift rests.
Experienced staff knew that to keep spirits and energy high they needed to focus on helping each other as well as their patients. They arranged games, watched movies, exercised and even celebrated birthdays.
Another team took care of the more than 120 children who sheltered at the hospital as their parents worked. They entertained and comforted children so moms and dads could focus on taking care of people in the community. Our brave, dedicated emergency medical services teams responded to hundreds of calls, sometimes having to park blocks away because of downed trees. They pushed stretchers through wind and rain to help those in need.
Morale was high and camaraderie strong -- the mission of caring at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Sacrifice for the Service of Our Community
We had more than 500 patients at NHRMC during the storm, requiring care day and night. With more than 120 members of the medical staff on hand, we had specialists ready for anything. The emergency department remained open, and emergency procedures were performed. Throughout the week, our labor-and-delivery teams helped bring 42 babies into the world.
Our staff was here because the work of the medical community doesn’t stop in a storm. Neither, though, does the needs of their families.
That’s where we witnessed remarkable sacrifice: the nurse who handed pumped breast milk out the emergency department door to her husband so he could feed their infant at home; the mom, sleeping with her young son in a sleep room, who had to wake him in the middle of the night and take him to the childcare center so she could help perform an emergency procedure; the team member who was in tears as she video-chatted with her crying son and had to explain why she couldn’t come home yet; the employee who saw his flooded home on the news and realized that it would be days or weeks before he’d be able to return to see what was salvageable.
Employees and physicians made these sacrifices so they could serve their community. Many of the stories were behind the scenes. Others were more evident.
NHRMC Steps In to Aid Our Community Partners
The toughest day started with an emergency call that a family was trapped in a Wilmington house that had been crushed by a large tree. A team was dispatched with other first-responders, and with winds reaching 90 mph, physicians and paramedics tried desperately to save the lives of those trapped. Knowing the risks they were taking, their work was both inspiring and terrifying.
As the days wore on, an endless stream of urgent calls came into the hospital’s emergency command center. Across the region, many different agencies and facilities tried to keep up with the challenges Hurricane Florence kept throwing their way: Wilmington’s water supply was in jeopardy when generator fuel became unavailable; emergency shelters ran low on vital oxygen and medications; patient-care facilities faced the prospect of having to evacuate due to structural damage.
NHRMC offered fuel, medical resources and guidance to help with emergencies far beyond the hospital’s walls. That is who we are and what our mission calls us to do.
Stepping Up to Challenges to Meet the Needs of Those Under Our Care
NHRMC was not without its own challenges, and our staff rose to every occasion. Roof damage let water stream into some offices and into the top floors of the patient tower, which already had been vacated as a safety precaution. The facilities team did a remarkable job addressing leaks as they were reported, keeping patients safe and limiting damage. Others jumped in to move equipment and supplies out of harm’s way.
In the middle of one night, silt from a hospital construction site began washing toward a building, seeping through the doors. Again, teams responded quickly to stop the deluge and protect those inside.
At the height of the storm, the night was interrupted by frequent tornado warnings. Our staff, well-trained and drilled, moved patients to safety in interior hallways, calming their fears while also worrying about what was happening to those beyond the hospital’s walls.
Staff Reinforcements Arrive to Offer Relief
As the waters rose, NHRMC remained accessible from within the city, but highway flooding was quickly cutting off access to Wilmington. Like thousands of others who heeded warnings to leave, many of our team members who did not work the storm had evacuated. We knew we needed to relieve our storm team, but did not want our evacuated staff to risk driving unsafe routes back. We assured them they would continue to be paid until it was safe to return. We then put out a call asking all those who could safely get to the hospital to come in and be prepared to stay. More than 400 staff members answered the call, and soon were working in whatever way they were most needed.
Together, this post-storm team set up a medical shelter at Codington Elementary School, housing people who had been forced to leave their homes, but who needed more medical care than a typical shelter could provide. In record time, this NHRMC team created a medical shelter unique both in the care it provided and the human bonds it formed. Together, staff and patients cried and prayed, supporting each other as they dealt with often-overwhelming emotions and uncertainty.
Meanwhile, others had been working around the clock to get facilities secured and staffed to meet increasing medical needs. Knowing that Pender Memorial Hospital would not be safe or accessible in a hurricane as dangerous as Florence was forecast to be, the decision was made several days before the storm hit to transfer all patients and close the hospital. A mobile hospital unit had been requested prior to the storm and was set up to serve patients until PMH could reopen. Our staff and physicians made their way to the mobile hospital by every means possible, ensuring patients would be served.
We also identified resources from around the state to get our own staff safely into Wilmington. While roads remained impassable, some critical staff were airlifted in. NHRMC’s team coordinated with other hospitals to supplement our staff with critical clinical personnel.
Caring for Our Own Affected by Florence
In the midst of all of this, some of our selfless caregivers were losing their homes and enduring other incredible hardships. Our team pulled together to help coworkers financially, emotionally and spiritually. Members of our staff who have lost so much have written moving letters describing how, at a time when they had lost everything, they were comforted by the outpouring of support from their NHRMC family.
NHRMC gave each employee a $100 gift card to help with short-term expenses. Many chose to donate the money instead, putting others’ needs ahead of their own. They also began volunteering where they could to support their neighbors. Even in the face of crisis, they have continued to live our mission of Leading Our Community to Outstanding Health.
Looking Forward to Recovery With Resiliency and Hope
As we continue the long process of physical recovery, we realize that on the inside we are forever changed. We have felt the vulnerability of being at the mercy of a large storm. We have faced challenges both personal and professional. And we have come together to help one another through the toughest of times.
We are proud that the NHRMC team represents what’s best in our community. From the facilities crews who worked tirelessly to keep the more than 2,500 people within the building safe during the storm, and the food and nutrition staff who made sure we were well fed, to the clinical teams who provided not just medical care but also comfort to the sick and injured at the hospital and shelters, the NHRMC team came together, solved problems, and put the needs of our community first.
We are humbled and honored to work alongside these heroes who are here for you and our community every day, even in the most challenging times. We hope you will join us in thanking them for their service and sacrifice.
- John H. Gizdic, president and CEO of New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Dr. Robert Cortina, chief of NHRMC medical staff.