At some point during my tenure in the ED there was an epic blizzard that covered our state in roughly four feet of snow and ice.
I of course was at my first shift of three in a row twelve hour day shifts.
The hospital made it clear that we were all expected to make it to work. We were essential personnel and we could sleep in the cafeteria on cots if it meant we’d be there in the morning for our shift.
Another nurse and myself ended up splitting the cost of a hotel room that was about a five minute drive from the hospital. The hospital shuttle driver assured us he would grab us in the morning, he told us there were chains on the shuttle and no matter what he’d make it to the hotel and get us. There were about three dozen of us that stayed there that night, not all from the emergency department.
I only had one change of clothes with me because we had never seen a storm bad enough that I wouldn’t be able to make it home the second night.
We woke up in the morning and we could see the highway from our hotel room window. There was a tractor trailer truck jackknifed blocking all three lanes and other dots of cars stuck on the highway in mountains of snow. We knew this was going to be bad.
We went downstairs and met up with our other nurses and waited. And waited. We called the hospital. The shuttle was stuck. The bed manager told us to stay put that her husband would get us. We looked miserably outside thinking we were all going to be fired…as the hospital had threatened to do just that if we didn’t make it back.
We would later find out that all the plows were broken down at one point so there was literally four feet of snow on the roads, minimally if plowed at all, some tire marks to follow here and there, and cars just stopped in the middle of the road stuck in piles of snow.
We all were contemplating walking there when a white suburban roared up to the hotel. I swear to you it slid in front of the double doors. The window rolled down and a guy in his pajamas yelled, “You guys for the children’s hospital? GET IN!” I’m not religious but I crossed myself. I also put my seatbelt on and pulled it tight.
That man got all of us to the hospital. We literally slid all over the capital city and avoided hitting cop cars multiple times, during which he would roll his window down and yell at the cops to get out of his way because he was carrying nurses and the cops would look at him like he was nuts trying to decide if they should stop him or not.
He made about four trips back and forth and God knows how he even got into the city from his house, but he did. The day shift made it in. Nights was relieved. Some night shift people took day shift people’s hotel room keys and crashed there during the day. A lot of OR scrubs went missing because none of us had clothes.
So we all showed up for day shift and people who hadn’t stayed at the hotel were helped by strangers when they got stuck on on-ramps and off-ramps and one person’s neighbor even drove them in because he didn’t want her in her little car and he had a truck. It restored my faith that day in good samaritans and in people helping people in the cold and snow, helping nurses get to work.
It was a slow day but not as slow as you might think.
My two most memorable encounters were one patient and one staff member.
There was a car that pulled up to the ambulance bay doors. A Father got out and opened the back door and pulled out a young child bundled up from the cold. We let them in. The Father was humble and quiet and his child had cancer, was on chemotherapy, and spiked a fever that morning. He knew he had to take them in. He told me where he lived, and I knew it was a solid hour without four feet of snow. I asked him how the hell he made it here!
He put his child on a sled under blankets to get to a main road. He walked two miles through thigh high snow. Neighbors saw him, some who knew him and some who didn’t, and they all came out to help him- taking turns pulling the sled and making sure his child was comfortable.
His sister and her husband showed up at the main road and piled them into their truck and drove them the rest of the way. He said they got stuck many times and each time he and his sister and his brother-in-law would shovel out the truck and he said every time other cars stopped to help. I said something like “That’s amazing. You are a great Dad.” He smiled and said,
“She’s my daughter. She had to come in. I’m not great. I’m just her Dad.”
Later in the day an ambulance came in and I had seen the EMT a few times. She looked haggard. I asked if she was okay, her eyes welled up and she said, “We couldn’t get to a call in time. Heart attack. We got the stretcher out, the road wasn’t plowed, it took us forty-five minutes to walk to the house with the stretcher. He was dead. We should have been there, we should have saved him,” She cried then.
I’m not a hugger. But I gave her a hug. Eventually she wiped away her tears and her partner sorta slapped her on the shoulder in an awkward, please God stop crying before we go back to the ambulance type of way, and then they went back out into the snow.
I have to be honest. The third day shift after my second night in the hotel I didn’t wear any underwear. I only had enough for one overnight not two. And twelve hour shifts don’t leave a lot of time to get laundry done. I had to choose….sleep or clean underwear. I chose no underwear and doubled up on the OR scrub bottoms.
Couple things about this whole experience. The hospital never offered to help pay for the hotel fees; not even partially. I think they gave us a 5$ voucher for lunch. They sure as hell didn’t have clean underwear on hand. But they expected their staff to eat/sleep/live at the hospital as long as they needed to in order to make it to our shifts. They just didn’t want to help fund it. I would have had far less of an issue paying for all my meals, a hotel room for two nights, and scrounging for food and clothes if I knew my employer was 1- grateful 2- going to take some sort of financial responsibility.
But they didn’t. The people who took it upon themselves to help us were strangers who dug out our cars and in some cases drove us to work.
I don’t know why it takes a natural disaster for people to show their true good colors. But it does sometimes. It also takes a natural disaster for a hospital built as a corporation to also show it’s true colors. We were told that we could be fired if we didn’t show up, yet the hospital shuttle never came to get us and the hospital never gave us a viable solution that would allow us to spend the night and actually sleep and shower and eat.
Instead a maniac in his pajamas who didn’t know us at all, who only knew his wife was a bed manager who also barely knew us, but called him forty minutes earlier and said, “Honey, I need your help,” showed up when we needed a miracle.
He never asked any questions. He swore at cops and buses to get out of his damn way and yelled that he had some nurses to deliver…he saved our jobs and the night shift nurses from being stuck there.
It takes a lot for me to admire people and a lot for me to judge them. I had already started to realize hospital systems are about the bottom line and not actually about supporting nurses. That day was another nail in the coffin for my view of my employer.
I came to admire the Father who would not take praise for doing the right thing. He was freezing still when he came in but he was only concerned for his child. He played it down like it was no big deal to get there. We all knew it was. His child was admitted inpatient because unfortunately they were very ill.
The EMT and her partner who trekked through four feet of snow carrying a heavy stretcher and gear only to find their patient dead. Then shedding silent tears as they trekked back with a body instead of a person. I felt true admiration for the people I encountered that day and pride to be working beside them. I also had never been so incredibly thankful for all the strangers who stopped and helped all the nurses get to and from work that weekend. As essential employees it was another way in which our bonds were strengthened. We all were there for each other in so many ways that weekend and that’s part of what makes working in acute care so incredibly powerful.
p.s. because if I don’t mention this my friend will freak out…I also appreciate the nurse who lived in my hometown (literally the hardest hit in the state with 4-5 feet everywhere) who with my wife shoveled out a spot in her apartment complex so after my third shift I could finally go home. I zigzagged down the highway and slid off the exit ramp and I parked in her complex and she dropped us at the end of our unplowed street where my wife and I trekked through waist high snow (Yes I did not have underwear on and still only two scrub pants on no snow pants, so yeah I was cold) to get to our house. Thanks dude;)
p.p.s. The benefit to staying in the hotel instead of on a cot was they served wine at the hotel. And because there were a bunch of nurses there…they served a lot of it that weekend.