Usually, when a major snowstorm hits Boston, the incident management team at Massachusetts General Hospital springs into action. The hospital’s conference rooms become sleep rooms for staff. The IMT members, a cross-section of leaders from clinical departments to dietary and building and grounds, discuss how to keep patients and employees informed of the latest developments, make sure snowplow gas tanks are filled and order extra supplies.
The barrage of snowstorms in Boston this winter, however, “required a lot more than anything those plans had in them,” says Paul Biddinger, Massachusetts General’s medical director for preparedness.” Highways were closed, public transit disabled and the need for snow removal relentless. With patients having to stay at the hospital longer because of treacherous conditions, “we’ve actually had to cancel some of our surgical and procedural cases because we didn’t have beds,” says Biddinger. “It’s a last resort, but it’s something we’ve had to do.”
Leaders at other Boston hospitals tell similar stories.
Jeanette Clough, president and CEO of Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, called a storm that hit the last week in January “one of the worst I’ve ever seen in terms of trying to get people to work and get people safely accommodated.” And then came two more megastorms, for a total of 7 feet of snow.
The city sent a police vehicle to pick up a dozen employees stranded when trains and buses stopped running. Other staff walked up to three miles to get to work.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center rented four-wheel drive vehicles and ran its own shuttle service to pick up and drop off employees, says Judi Bieber, senior vice president of human resources.
Massachusetts General paid taxis to take patients home “when it was clinically appropriate,” Biddinger says. A manager in the emergency department spent three and a half hours driving staff to work one day “so he could keep his department functioning.”
As the January storm neared, Mount Auburn employees rolled out extra linen carts, scrubs and snacks for a makeshift “Mount Auburn Hotel.” Patients, too, spent extra nights in the hospital.
Boston Medical Center housed and fed about 250 of its staff one night, says Ravin Davidoff, chief medical director.
At Mount Auburn, surgeries generally went on as planned. Staff called patients and clinicians on the first day of the storm to see who was planning to come in, and rescheduled on the spot if necessary.
Biddinger says that with so many patients unable to return home because they or their caregivers couldn’t get there, Massachusetts General faced “very serious capacity challenges” and is looking at how to do things differently. “We are questioning whether it’s better to cancel more admissions and more procedures early — either just before or just at the beginning of the storm, so we can recover faster and cancel fewer procedures and admissions later.”
At South Shore Hospital, employees tend to drive to work, so transportation was less of an issue than moving massive amounts of snow, says Sarah Darcy, media relations manager. The home care division had to be evacuated in February because of the threat of a roof collapse due to the weight of the snow. At the main building, the hospital used a giant crane to remove snow from the roof as a precaution, dumping it into dumpsters in a bag, which were transported to a “snow farm” — vacant land used to store excess snow.
Biddinger says Massachusetts General’s snow removal from the three storms cost in the millons of dollars.
Hospitals lost revenue because of closed physicians’ offices, so they extended staff hours. “We’re going to take a big hit in our budget,” says Mount Auburn’s Clough. “Tons of our staff worked overtime to shovel and clear our different locations in our main campus.”
Still, she proudly notes, “we figured it out with the patients. Some people, I’m sure, waited in waiting rooms. But babies were still being born.”