Houston Chronicle

‘None of this is normal’: Ice sparks hospital chaos

State’s winter storm was just the latest catastroph­e facing health care workers

- By Robert Downen STAFF WRITER

After hearing news of an impending ice storm, Maritza Ramirez did what she has so many times before: She packed a to-go bag and volunteere­d to work.

For Ramirez, a nurse at Methodist Hospital, five years of catastroph­es made the ice storm feel almost routine. Like so many others in Houston’s health care industry, the 29year-old nurse has come to expect the unexpected — chaos on top of chaos. The seemingly endless stream of catastroph­ic events has sometimes made it difficult for frontline workers to take a step back and process the mayhem that has become the norm.

“It’s definitely not normal,” she said. “And I think anyone who says this is normal is kidding themselves or hasn’t processed it. Because none of this is normal.”

Ramirez chose to work with Methodist’s COVID-19 patients nearly a year ago, and during Tropical Storm Imelda, Hurricane Harvey and the onslaught of other natural disasters to hit Southeast Texas in recent years. Then, last week, amid forecasts of a potentiall­y dangerous winter storm, she again raised her hand for what became a four-day shift in one of the worst disasters to hit Texas in decades.

By Tuesday — the third day in her stretch — some 4 million Texans were without power in frigid temperatur­es. Dozens would ultimately die.

She spent the week sleeping on an air mattress, worrying about patients and trying to check in with her family when possible.

Across the region, nurses and doctors similarly juggled their own problems at home while tending to sick and dying patients, or the hundreds of people hospitaliz­ed for carbon monoxide poisoning and other health emergencie­s.

“You’re like, OK, I mopped up my kitchen floor and the busted pipe,” said Dr. Ben Saldana, who oversees Methodist’s emergency department­s. “Now I’ve got to go to work and deal with someone else’s anxiety and make sure they’re safe.”

Saldana said at least half of his staff ’s homes were affected by the storm, and some were unable to commute throughout the week. But he said they never felt particular­ly overwhelme­d — the challenges posed by COVID-19 over the last year have forced staff to become more “agile,” he said, and they’re now used to working in unpreceden­ted conditions.

The week reminded him why he pursed medicine in the first place: “You always feel better when you’re doing something for someone.”

Finding humor

Summer Block hopes that, with enough time, she’ll be able to find cathartic humor in the mayhem that the last year has brought.

“I think there will come a point where we look back and laugh,” she said. “It’s been a bad year, and it’s kind of like, ‘What else can get thrown at us?’

“But you never say that, because then an ice storm hits,” she added. “... If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.”

Block oversees the emergency department at St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands Hospital, which also saw an influx of patients during the storm and resulting power loss.

It was a logistical challenge: Many people couldn’t be discharged because they had no power or water at home, and it became increasing­ly difficult to find rooms to treat new patients while keeping them socially distanced and taking other precaution­s against the coronaviru­s. Like many others, the hospital has scaled back visitor hours and the use of shared rooms for patients.

But it could have been much worse, she said.

Giving support

While it’s sometimes difficult to process the bevy of emotions that come with working in urgent care during dual catastroph­es, Block said her team has become closer because of them. They’re now more attuned to one another’s emotions, and more intentiona­l about supporting each other.

On Friday, she could still occasional­ly hear laughter from outside of her office — small reminders of joy in a time and place that can often feel so dark.

“Is it exhausting? Yes, it is. Is it frustratin­g at times? Yes,” she said. “But everyone is helping everyone with everything they can. And we are blessed to have the people here to do that.”

 ?? Godofredo A. Vásquez / Staff photograph­er ?? Paramedics load up a patient in need of dialysis Wednesday on an ambulance leaving United Memorial Medical Center.
Godofredo A. Vásquez / Staff photograph­er Paramedics load up a patient in need of dialysis Wednesday on an ambulance leaving United Memorial Medical Center.

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