Surviving Sandy: An Inside Story of the NYU Hospital Evacuation

Takepart.com

Hurricane Sandy hadn't made landfall yet, but the winds were howling and the rain was torrential in New York by Monday evening. Zahava Cohen, a nurse manager at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, decided to sleep at the hospital that night, after a full day of work.

Around midnight, she went to sleep, bracing for what she knew would be a busy Tuesday.

She had no idea how busy. An hour later, around 1 a.m., the frantic call came.

The backup generator power at nearby New York University's Langone Medical Center had failed. Their staff needed to transfer some babies from their neonatal intensive care unit, and fast.

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Montefiore was also accepting 21 adult patients from other hospitals, a scenario being repeated all around New York as Sandy wreaked her havoc.

Transferring babies, especially those born premature, is especially delicate, Cohen says.

"Preemies have certain things you watch for," she says. "Their eyes, for instance, must be closely monitored for signs of retinopathy of prematurity, an eye condition that can turn serious and require surgery. We have to keep them warm," she says.  

Their breathing must also be monitored constantly. Premature babies can often forget to breathe on their own. Cohen's staff agreed to take four. She rallied her nursing staff and consulted with the staff doctors on how to accomplish the feat.

"I have a staff of 80," says Cohen, who is certified for neonatal nursing care. That night only 11 were working the night shift.

"The Langone babies arrived at about 3:15,  3:30," she recalls. "At the same time we were delivering another baby."

There was more drama. The Langone staff had arrived with two extra babies, so Cohen needed to find space for them. That would mean a total census of 41, well above the usual count in her NICU.

"We ended up waking up the nurses who had gone to sleep," she says. "The staff had been up since 7 a.m., and this was now close to 4 a.m."

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While Cohen and her staff wrestled with how to accommodate two more preemies, they looked at the faces of the Langone staff who had engineered the transfers, and some of the parents who had made the trek with them.

Cohen's voice is empathetic. "These people had been taking babies out, down dark steps [for hours]," she says. "They were exhausted."

Her decision to absorb the extra babies was also made easier when she thought of the parents. They were already stressed out by having babies born too soon, of course.

Now, Cohen says, they were first terrified about the lack of power at the hospital. Next, they had to cope with their babies being transferred to a place they probably knew nothing about—and didn't know if they could trust.

How could she now tell them their babies were being transported yet again?

"We just decided to absorb the [extra] babies," Cohen says. "My nurses said, 'No, let's keep them. These people need relief, the parents need relief.' "

After all these decades, the neonatal ICU is clearly still a special place to her.

"The babies are there for so long," she says, "that we take care of families, not just babies."

As soon as the babies were safely admitted to the NICU, the Montefiore nurses started to nurse their Langone colleagues.

"We gave the Langone nurses and doctors juice and cookies," Cohen says. "We told them, 'Sit down and eat.' "

Cohen has been a nurse since 1976. "It's an esprit de corps, a camaraderie that exists among healthcare workers," she says.

Even after the transfer, Cohen says, nurses from both hospitals continued to work together.

"One of the moms [whose baby had been transferred] worried about her breast milk, in the freezer there at NYU,'' Cohen says.

Cohen's team called the Langone team. The medical center was still in the dark. Even so, "a nurse at NYU was going to walk over and see if she could get to the milk," Cohen says.

In the end, it was impossible, but the mother is not likely to forget that effort.

"One father was sleeping in a chair," Cohen says. One of her nurses who had been trying to catch some rest noticed how uncomfortable he looked. "She gave him  her air mattress," Cohen says. "Then she got up and went back to work."

By Thursday, when Cohen shared her stories with TakePart, the hurricane, then downgraded to a tropical storm, had passed, but the recovery continued.  Cohen finally went home Tuesday night, but went back to work quickly.

During the brunt of the storm, she figures she worked about 40 hours straight.

Monday was her birthday. She didn't have special plans for the day, instead expecting to celebrate this weekend with her three grown kids and the grandkids, who all live nearby.

The party is on, she says. They will all come to her house. "I'm the only one with power."

So the kids and grandkids will trudge through flooded streets, coming from Oceanside, Teaneck, and Washington Heights for her birthday party.

"My son says he is renaming me Sandy," Cohen laughs.


Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist who writes about health. She doesn't believe in miracle cures, but continues to hope someone will discover a way for joggers to maintain their pace.

 

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