They keep taking care of the taking care business The beat goes on: At University of Maryland Hospital, lifelines stay open.

January 10, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

A low chukka-chukka-chukka can be heard just outside the window, a rhythmic rumble familiar to anyone who has ever watched an episode of "M*A*S*H*." The first helicopter since the blizzard started on Sunday has made it in, and the hospital officials gathered in a makeshift crisis command center at Shock-Trauma can breathe a little easier.

Maintenance workers have been clearing the rooftop helipad since the storm started, even as high winds and bad visibility prevented any air traffic until Monday afternoon. They've been plowing snow into the heated wells rimming the roof that melt it, and sprinkling salt, necessary for the ice even though it will swirl up in a little tornado whenever a helicopter lands and get in the faces of doctors and nurses rushing out to reach the incoming patients.

You can almost see the officials mentally checking the now operating helipad off the running list of things-to-do to keep the massive University of Maryland Medical Center ticking on even as utter chaos erupts elsewhere in the blizzard-besieged world.

With more than 500 patients and 1,000 employees at any one time in the complex on the western edge of downtown Baltimore, the medical center is a complicated and ever-churning community. While there are fewer elective operations these days, delayed until the snow clears, there are the extra storm-related injuries and maladies: the sledding accidents, the people hit by snow plows, the anxieties that send people to the emergency room with complaints like "feeling tense." Snow or not, the staff, patients and supplies need to get in and out.

Which for the staff means working extra shifts, and staying on until a replacement manages to make it in. Catching a short nap in an empty patient room or on the floor of your office. Getting the nearby Papa John's pizza place to make you 150 pizzas for lunch, or hotels to give you a break on their room rates. Trading on the kindness of co-workers and former patients and volunteers who come to the rescue with four-wheel drive vehicles and home-cooked, and delivered, meals.

"I guess it's good training," a weary Alexander Jirau said as he awaited a ride home Monday evening. The trauma technician, who had been on duty since Friday night, is also a member of a reserve unit expected to leave for Bosnia in about a month. "There's such a team feeling here," said Mr. Jirau, due back for another 12-hour shift today. "I didn't mind."

Indeed, a major snow storm serves to highlight how, for all the high technology and endless bureaucracy that fuels modern medicine, it's really people who keep a hospital humming along in a low-keyed, reassuring way. That became the hospital's main priority -- getting staff in, keeping them fed and rested and happy and making sure others were lined up to replace them.

Compared to the snow frenzy elsewhere, the hospital staff seemed remarkably nonplused. Nurses found their way in, usually bearing welcome food and news from the outside world, and slept when and where they could -- a spare patient bed or, if they had a bit more time, the nearby Marriott or Days Inn. They had help, both in and out of the hospital.

"It was around midnight, and four of us were going over to the Marriott," said Wendy Austin, director of patient care services for the cancer center, "and this man in a four-wheel drive took us over." As they drove by one of the hospital buildings, Ms. Austin said, he tooted his horn. It turns out his wife had been a patient for three months with a complicated pregnancy and whenever he passes her old room, he blows his horn. I'll always have a debt of gratitude to this hospital, he told the nurses.

Everyone has a similar story: The father of a baby in the pediatric ICU who ferried staff members to and from the hospital, the insurance agent who heard an appeal for drivers on the radio and began picking up nurses and using his cellular phone to contact others who might need rides.

Once at the hospital, they expect to bunker down for a while. It helps, of course, that there are plenty of beds and towels and food in a hospital. In addition to its cafeteria, the medical center has its own Subway and a Donna's (the former managed to open on Monday, the latter didn't).

The busiest area was the room dedicated to transportation, linking staff members with others who have four-wheel drive vehicles and could get them to work or home. And, at mealtimes, the lines stretched out a concierge-like nook that was giving away free cafeteria meal vouchers for staff (and attracted a couple of gown-clad patients who thought the snowstorm meant they had to fend for themselves, meal-wise), as well as toiletries and towels.

"When people think about hospitals, they tend to think only of the clinical aspect," said Sharon O'Keefe, senior vice president for patient care services and operations. "But you're also running a little hotel. And a supply-intensive operation."

And labor- and time-intensive.

On Saturday, Eileen Kavanagh, a nurse coordinator, arranged for her three kids to stay with her sister for several days. Except for a brief nap or two in a patient room, she and other nurse administrators roamed the hospital, making sure the various departments had enough staff and otherwise playing mother hen.

"I turned on the TV the other night and there were my kids. They were sledding on TV Hill," Ms. Kavanagh said with a tired laugh. "So at least I got to see them that way. I called them one night, and they were having too much fun to talk to me."

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