Hospitals Struggle to Provide Care In Blizzard's Wake

From a Queens hospital inaccessible to ambulances, to frostbite and staff shortages, it’s been a challenging couple of days for medical professionals working to provide care at New York City hospitals in difficult conditions.

Since Sunday evening, emergency rooms in New York City have reported a rise in fractures resulting from slips and falls, as well as cases of hypothermia, cold-induced asthma and conditions related to over-exertion while shoveling snow, ranging from back pain to heart attacks.

Additionally, many outside services, like dialysis clinics and pharmacies, were closed on Monday and Tuesday, causing many patients to seek care at hospitals. Many of the homeless, with no place to go, turned to hospitals for shelter and food, according to physicians.

Carl Ramsay, who heads the Department of Emergency Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, estimated that injuries from falling were 20 percent higher than normal in his ER.

But it was transportation issues that accounted for most of the problems, preventing patients and ambulances from getting to the hospital and making it difficult for staff members to get to work.

“When the storm first began, our numbers fell below what we would normally expect,” said Dr. Patricia Kerry, of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. Her emergency room, which normally services 325 patients a day, only saw about 250 on Monday. Yet the hospital remained overcrowded because previously admitted patients were unable to get home in the storm. “We’re trying to house and feed and medically care for a lot of people,” she said.

These same issues caused even more problems in the outer boroughs, where many major streets remained unplowed, blocked by stuck buses and abandoned vehicles. Ole Paderson, VP of Public Affairs at Jamaica Hospital reported that, as of Tuesday afternoon, the streets surrounding Jamaica Hospital in Queens were still not plowed, despite several calls to city officials, making it impossible for ambulances or private vehicles to approach the hospital.

“You’d think that hospitals would be high on the list for getting plowed -- but that’s not the case apparently,” said Paderson. “There’s no place to put the ambulances. Staff and doctors can’t even get in. It’s really not a good situation.”

A food shipment had to be unloaded across the street and carried in by hand, and Paderson himself ferried nurses to work in his four-wheel drive Jeep. “That’s how bad it is,” Paderson said.

Steven Silver, of New York Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, reported similar, if less extreme, conditions in his ER. “Nobody can get here,” he said. The hospital's ER normally admits 50 to 60 people to the hospital every day, but only 8 people were hospitalized on Monday. “Although the volume was low, we expect the people who are sick and ill, once they can get out, they’ll probably come in and it will probably be an increase over the next few days," said Silver.

Hospitals are anticipating that they will be getting much busier in the coming days as ambulance backlog and road clearing improves. “People who were sick on Saturday night, a lot of them delayed seeking care. A lot of them would have been better off if they came in earlier,” said Lenox Hill's Ramsay. “You can’t blame them I guess -- it was very difficult to get around.”

Hospitals were forced to operate with less staff than normal on Monday and Tuesday because of difficult commutes from the boroughs and outlying suburbs. Several hospitals reported that staff slept in the hospital overnight, pulling double shifts to make up for the shortages. “Many of our doctors, nurses and techs braved very long commutes to get here,” said Ramsey. “They really are very dedicated and they showed that in the last couple of days.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg called a press conference in Brooklyn on Tuesday morning to address the challenges facing the city’s emergency services. He called on New Yorkers to donate blood. “Blood supply in the city is getting very low and with another three-day holiday weekend coming up it will get even lower,” he said.

According to the City Medical Examiner’s office, no blizzard-related deaths have yet been reported.