In Galveston, Texas, Hospital Weathers Storm

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In Galveston, University of Texas Medical Branch staff evacuated all patients before Hurricane Ike and stayed through the storm. They used lessons learned during Hurricane Rita. Now, they are preparing to receive new patients.


A hospital on the eastern edge of Galveston Island took a hard hit from Hurricane Ike. But patients were not in danger. They were evacuated from the University of Texas Medical Branch. NPR's John Burnett reports on how the hospital avoided the sort of tragedy that occurred at hospitals in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

JOHN BURNETT: One of the many unsung heroes during Hurricane Ike was Doctor Joan Richardson, the six-foot-tall neonatal specialist and chief of emergency preparedness at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She oversaw the complete evacuation of the hospitals, including the tiniest patients imaginable.

Dr. JOAN RICHARDSON (Chief of Emergency Preparedness, University of Texas Medical Branch): The evacuation went great. We evacuated well over 300 people, and it just so happened that about 51 of them were newborns, neonates from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and these are little bitty babies who were sick and had all kinds of life support systems to keep them going.

BURNETT: UTMB, as it's known by its initials, has a respected neonatal intensive care unit built by Dr. Richardson. She stands in a corridor wearing a University of Texas longhorn sun visor, shorts and sneakers, and marveling at what they've just been through. In the days and hours before Ike hit, helicopters and airplanes sped toward hospitals in Austin and San Antonio carrying children weighing slightly more than a pound who would fit easily in the palm of your hand.

Dr. RICHARDSON: You know, when you're transporting a 150-pound adult, you don't need the kind of specialized equipment that we need when we had these little babies. Many of those babies were on respirators. Many of those babies were on oxygen. They're all little bitty and so they need incubators to keep them warm, and so the transport of a neonate is a very specialized operation. And we're blessed that all kinds of people showed up to help us move those babies.

BURNETT: UTMB, which is also a teaching hospital, evacuated for Hurricane Rita three years ago, but the storm wasn't as bad, and there were not as many tiny patients. And Richardson says, this time, the hospital faced a unique challenge. As they evacuated preemies away from Galveston, women kept coming through the doors of the E.R. in premature labor and having more.

Dr. RICHARDSON: So, for a while, we had trouble getting ahead of things. The babies were ahead of us, but we finally got caught up and got everybody out.

BURNETT: In addition to the preemies, the hospital evacuated 335 patients in all. 90 of them were inmates from the Texas Prison System. They were taken away in ambulances under guard and shackled on their stretchers. Then the storm hit. Four feet of salt water filled the first floor of John Sealy Hospital. The tireless staff, part of 550 who stayed behind, scrambled to move the kitchen, the pharmacy, and the sterile processing center onto higher floors, but the important thing was the patients were gone.

Hurricane Katrina taught hospitals a historic lesson, particularly those in vulnerable hurricane and flood zones. Hospitals in New Orleans sheltered many patients in place, believing it was safer to leave them in a medical facility with good back-up power systems, but the catastrophic hurricane swamped emergency power, turning the hospitals into hellholes for critically ill patients and heroic staff alike. When Hurricane Ike approached Galveston, UTMB did not hesitate to evacuate, says its president, Dr. David Calendar.

Dr. DAVID CALENDAR (President, University of Texas, Medical Branch): No matter how well you prepare your facilities and your people are at risk, you do need to be prepared to evacuate all your patients. You need to be prepared to make that decision well in advance of the arrival of the storm. If you can't for some reason evacuate patients or you take patients during the storm, you're going to be operating under the most difficult circumstances. Some people might call it battlefield medicine conditions.

BURNETT: As soon as the city restores power and water, UTMB will try to bring back its patients as soon as possible. Says Dr. Joan Richardson, I want all my babies back. John Burnett, NPR News, Galveston.

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