Medical workers went the extra mile for patients

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Nothing reflects the dedication of emergency medical crews during the snowstorm more than what happened in Oakland about 2 a.m. Saturday.

An ambulance crew from Eastern Area Prehospital Services tried three times to get up steep DeSoto Street to UPMC Presbyterian with an unconscious patient aboard, failing on each attempt.

After the third try, the ambulance got stuck on a concrete island at the foot of DeSoto, paramedic Chris Koepf said, and so he and emergency medical technician Elyse Harkema piled out of the vehicle and pulled the gurney out. With the help of a college student who was passing by and two hospital employees, they pushed the 200-pound patient all the way up the hill to the emergency room.

Nancy Osinksi, a patient services staffer at UPMC Presbyterian who witnessed the effort, said "you can only imagine how difficult that was, if you've ever tried to push even a shopping cart through the snow to your car."

The patient remained unconscious throughout the ordeal, but hospital officials said she had been treated and was doing better.

As for Mr. Koepf?

"I grew up in Cleveland," he said, "and that's in the snow belt, so I've been driving in snow since I was 16, but this was the worst storm I've had to drive any vehicle in."

Despite getting far more snow than had been forecast, "we're very fortunate that we have not had any attributable deaths or major injuries so far from the storm," said Robert Full, emergency services chief for Allegheny County, on Saturday.

Most hospitals in the region operated Friday night and early Saturday on emergency plans, which meant that nurses and other employees often stayed past their regular shifts, while incoming workers were given extra time to arrive.

That brought special praise from Mr. Full. "They could have said, 'I'll take the day off and stay home' but many, many of them showed up and turned out to work."

The stress on hospital staffs was compensated for partly by a lower volume of emergencies than they typically would see, as most people went into hibernation mode in the midst of the huge storm.

Dan Laurent, a spokesman for the West Penn Allegheny Health System, said business was so slow for Allegheny General and the West Penn-Forbes Regional Campus in Monroeville that only nine patients were admitted at both emergency rooms Friday night and Saturday morning.

The only major glitch for the West Penn Allegheny system was at Canonsburg Hospital in Washington County, which lost power along with much of the region around it. Auxiliary generators quickly kicked in, he said, but the hospital went to "code black," meaning it decided not to accept any new patients until power was restored.

The 104-bed hospital, which was about half full, expected to get its power back sometime Saturday evening, Mr. Laurent said.

Jefferson Regional Medical Center closed its emergency room at around 11 p.m. Friday night after both of its power lines went out, knocking out a portion of its diagnostic imaging equipment. The center continued to operate, but diverted patients elsewhere until Duquesne Light could restore the hospital's power lines, said spokeswoman Charlene Frederick.

The lack of power created other kinds of medical problems for some people.

Jeff Kelly, operations supervisor for the Ross-West View Emergency Medical Services Authority, said several of his calls came from people who use oxygen, which is often dispensed with an electrical motor.

While the oxygen units often have backup batteries, Mr. Kelly said, "people were afraid of running out, so we were providing extra canisters in some cases."

Michael Turturro, chief emergency medical physician at UPMC Mercy, said business was slower than normal at Mercy's emergency room on Friday and Saturday, but he expected that to pick up as soon as the roads were clearer.

"Just because it's snowing outside it doesn't mean you can't have a kidney stone or a stroke, but it's been hard for people to get here," he said.

Hospitals had seen few visits for one of the major scourges of a big snowstorm -- snow shoveling injuries.

While heart attacks among shovelers are a major concern, the biggest problem in heavy snows is pulled muscles, especially strained backs and shoulders, Dr. Turturro said. There are an estimated 100,000 snow shoveling injuries nationally each year, he said.

Besides wearing proper clothing, he said, people tackling 2- and 3-foot drifts need to take it slowly, shovel in layers, and "push as much of the snow as you can instead of lifting it, because lifting is what causes most injuries."

Those who know they have heart disease or high blood pressure should just avoid shoveling altogether, he said. But for others, especially those with a sedentary lifestyle, "shoveling snow is like an intense cardiac stress test, and it may be the first time they realize they have heart problems."

If someone suffers a heart attack shoveling, it becomes an even bigger problem in this weather because of the extra time it often takes emergency crews to get there.

Throughout the region Saturday, emergency medical trips became a coordinated effort with police officers, firefighters and public works crews.

The city-county emergency operations center in Point Breeze was activated in the morning. Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven, who was without power or a way to get there, hitched a ride with a public works vehicle. Public works and public safety officials sent out vehicles to get workers in for their shifts, she said.

At the center, officials set up a kind of salt truck-and-plow triage system for ambulances that got stuck in snow drifts. Dispatchers, public works officials and police officials worked shoulder to shoulder, with public works sending out trucks in advance of ambulances, or to rescue them, firetrucks dispatched to clear downed trees to facilitate emergency medical vehicles and dispatchers sorting out priorities, Ms. Doven said.

If the trucks and plows couldn't do the job, tow trucks were sent as a final resort, said Robert McCaughan, emergency medical services chief.

In the Ross-West View service area, "every call we've been on today has required either a snow plow or snow blower and shovel to get to the people, and the fire departments have been extremely helpful providing lifting assistance and carrying," Mr. Kelly said.


Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. Lillian Thomas and Moriah Balingit contributed.


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