When Hurricane Sandy hit our shores in late October, nobody could have predicted the depth and damage the superstorm would leave behind. The entire health care system faced unprecedented challenges and complications, and even some of the most prestigious health care facilities found themselves humbled by the superstorm. There will always be plenty of opportunity to take lessons from natural disasters, such as Sandy. But the event also highlighted some accomplishments and advancements in emergency management and preparation.

 

At Hackensack University Medical Center, we began preparations for the storm more than a week in advance. Backup generators and extra fuel supply were brought on site; food, medications, and ample sleep accommodations were stocked at the hospital before the hurricane touched down. Once we lost power on Monday evening, HackensackUMC immediately switched to emergency generators and established an Incident Command Center to streamline information and communications.

During the storm, the medical center received and treated 60 patients from a neighboring hospital, Palisades Medical Center (Hudson County, NJ) that, like other hospitals, needed to be evacuated due to flood-related damage. With assistance from the National Guard and members of the Palisades health care team, patients were transported seamlessly in the middle of the night and early morning.

With a focus on our communities, HackensackUMC was honored to be able to offer help through our New Jersey Mobile Satellite Emergency Department (NJ-MSED) units, absorbing some of the patient overflow before, during and after Hurricane Sandy. The NJ-MSED vehicles, funded through a unique partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), exist in the form of two 43-foot trailers and a 48-foot trailer with expandable sides. The units are outfitted with: critical care beds; a portable digital X-ray unit; a small pharmaceutical cache; and one is outfitted as a mobile operating room.

In conjunction with the EMS Task Force, we were able to provide lifesaving emergency services to residents in four New Jersey counties, as well as hard-hit Long Island, NY. In fact, in the middle of the storm, the NJ-MSED team delivered a healthy baby boy while deployed in Brick, NJ, making national headlines for the team's heroic efforts. We remain deployed in Jersey City, NJ, to this day, ensuring we remain committed to the recovery efforts. We will remain on-site as long as requested, and have already seen nearly 1,000 patients.

Back on our main campus, we focused on helping our staff safely get to and from work. During the week of the storm, HackensackUMC purchased 1,000 gallons of gas and brought a tanker on campus to provide direct patient caregivers with up to five gallons each. A staff physician and local gas station owners arranged to donate 1,000 gallons of gasoline to 150 direct caregivers and 50 physicians — up to five gallons each, and numerous local gas stations also provided HackensackUMC staff members with a "priority" line. All of these efforts helped make it easier for some of our team members to continue providing critical care to patients.

While we will now focus on areas of opportunity from the storm, we should also take a moment to reflect on the positive performances demonstrated throughout the region. When put to the test, many hospitals rose to the occasion and emergency drill practices were transformed into real-life situations. Coordination, cooperation and open communication between hospitals were integral to the success of patient transfers and should be used as standard practices for the future.

I am proud of HackensackUMC, as well as other medical centers, for the tremendous response to such a catastrophic natural disaster. Hurricane Sandy reaffirmed the undeniable importance of health care facilities during any type of natural disaster, and many lessons will be learned industry-wide for the future.

Robert C. Garrett is President and Chief Executive Officer of Hackensack University Health Network.