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Mercy Hospital’s staff meets daunting challenges of being snowed in

Keri Zindle slept as best she could by her desk and got coffee at the Tim Hortons cafe in the lobby.

So went life for the last couple of days for the staff stuck at Mercy Hospital. Located in South Buffalo, the Catholic Health System facility was buried in one of the area’s hardest-hit by the historic snowstorm.

“The people here are doing what they can. They are making the best of it,” said Zindle, an emergency room coder and analyst who has been at the hospital since 11:30 a.m. Tuesday after a harrowing trip to work that forced her to abandon her four-wheel-drive Jeep.

“We’re starting to see a few new people coming in, but I’ll probably be here until Friday,” she said Wednesday by phone.

Accreditation at hospitals requires them to determine in advance whether they are capable of standing alone for at least 96 hours in an emergency. That means every key aspect of operations, from supplies and utilities to security and staffing.

The storm put Mercy to the test, and it appears to have passed.

“We have prepared and trained for this. There is enough food, medications and oxygen. The staff has been incredible. Everyone is hanging in there,” said C.J. Urlaub, the hospital’s president and CEO.

“If there is one message I’d like to get out, it’s that we’re taking care of patients,” he said.

The hospital at 565 Abbott Road near Cazenovia Park held 308 inpatients when the snow began and is caring for about 330, including those in the emergency room, with a staff consisting mainly of the on-call doctors and employees from Monday and Tuesday. Some people have been there since their 7 a.m.-to-7 p.m. Monday shift.

That has kept everyone very busy.

Doctors performed one emergency operation, and a handful of babies have been born since the start of the storm, including one by cesarean section.

For the most part, no one could get in or out of the facility until Wednesday when volunteer drivers in four-wheel-drive vehicles found a circuitous route open north to the Catholic Health headquarters downtown, which is serving as one of the system’s command centers.

With Abbott Road also finally opened by plows late Wednesday morning, officials used the headquarters on Genesee Street was a staging area, ferrying fresh staff to Mercy. Streets south of the hospital remained impassable.

Elective surgery and medical appointments have been canceled, so new patients generally aren’t coming in unless they walk. As of Wednesday afternoon, ambulances were not able to get in or out either, except for a trickle arriving from the recently opened northern route, although a patient needing specialty care was transferred Tuesday evening by ambulance from the Mercy Ambulatory Care Center in Orchard Park with the assistance of some plows, Urlaub said.

“We have been coordinating drivers, and it has gone well,” he said. “But the streets around the hospital were jammed with cars, and the roads to the Southtowns you can’t get through at all.”

Authorities are supposed to allow essential medical personnel to drive to work during driving bans. And some staff members were determined to get to the hospital.

Zindle left for work at 6 a.m. Tuesday and made it to the hospital at 11:30 a.m., a ride that usually takes her no more than 25 minutes from her Cheektowaga home. It turned into an adventure in driving in deep snow and whiteouts.

At one moment, while Zindle waited on Seneca Street for crews to clear the road, she lowered her window and overheard a man say he also was trying to make it to Mercy. It was Dr. Daniel J. Patterson, a general surgeon, and he advised Zindle to follow his car, caravanlike, toward the facility.

They successfully navigated to Cazenovia Street, where Zindle swerved to avoid hitting a truck and wedged her Jeep into a snowbank.

Patterson, wearing his surgical scrubs and sneakers, tried with the help of one of his passengers to dig her out. He even tried to pull the vehicle with a tow line. Nothing worked, so she abandoned the Jeep and joined Patterson’s group, which finally made it to Mercy.

“If it weren’t for Dr. Patterson, I would still be sitting in my truck, stuck in the snow,” Zindle said. “He even bought me a cup of coffee.”

Like others stuck in the hospital, she’s doing what work there is to do and helping out where needed. She slept at her desk for a few hours, although the hospital did set aside an area with beds.

“You just make the best of it,” Zindle said.

Anticipating problems with the weather, Dr. Timothy F. Gabryel got to work early Tuesday at 4 a.m. He’s still there.

If being stuck at the hospital was the bad news, the good news was that the storm made it nearly impossible for a large number of additional patients to arrive, a situation that would have severely challenged a tired and limited staff.

“We discharge 50 to 100 patients a day. If you can’t get people out of a room, you’re not going to be ready for new arrivals,” said Gabryel, the hospital’s vice president of medical affairs.

He and other hospital officials quickly began to organize life in the facility as the seriousness of the weather became clear.

They made sure patients received appropriate care.

They formalized staff sleeping schedules and created an area with beds.

Instead of an open-access cafeteria, they offered three free meals a day to staff members, as well as the approximately 80 people who took shelter from the storm in the hospital. The lobby includes several fast-food outlets, but they didn’t want anyone to feel as if they had to pay to eat.

Gabryel described the experience with the classic Yogi Berra quote about it being, “déjà vu all over again.”

“I was an intern at Millard Fillmore Gates during the Blizzard of ’77,” he said.

“The psychology of the situations is the same” he said. “You band together and recognize that it is a job to be done, and that we have the welfare of patients in our hands.”