The Medical Center Staff Weathers One of Chicago’s Worst Storms Ever with Patience and Creativity

Linda Garrett-Thomas, RN
Photo by David Christopher

Linda Garrett-Thomas, RN, spent two nights in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to help ensure that babies continued to receive care during the snowstorm. “We are always going to remember this,” she said with a smile.
By Dianna Douglas

Rachel Zipsie came out of surgery on January 31 and heard that something of a snowstorm was heading toward Chicago. She had no idea it soon would bring the city to its knees.

Zipsie watched as the fierce weather swept in, terrified that her physicians and nurses wouldn’t get to the hospital. “How would I get care?” she asked.

With a hospital full of patients wondering the same thing — plus thousands of people coming in for outpatient and emergency care every day — the nurses, physicians and staff at the University of Chicago Medical Center worked around the clock to keep the hospital operational.

Many staff members stayed on site, catching naps in the back of the cafeterias or in break rooms. A total of 271 people slept in cots provided by the Medical Center in the fourth-floor atrium of the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine.

The third floor where Zipsie was recovering was staffed throughout the storm and beyond. “The nurses were working tirelessly not to miss a beat,” said Zipsie, of Darien, Illinois. “If I pushed a button, someone was here within a nanosecond.”

Keeping the hospital running during the killer snowstorm was an enormous task. Bill Huffman, associate vice president of Facilities, Design and Construction, said the hospital was prepared to stay open and operational for up to 96 hours in a state of emergency.

Huffman worried about parking, food, snow removal, backup electricity and other needs. However, he said, “The most valuable resource is the labor pool.” The majority of his efforts were aimed at keeping workers safe and healthy.

The hospital dispatched SUVs throughout the city to get physicians and nurses for their shifts, and take them home safely afterward. Melanie Brown, MD, medical director of the Pediatric Comfort Team, waded through waist-high snow drifts in her neighborhood to reach a street accessible to the hospital’s SUV.

The drivers also stopped at the American Red Cross to get more blood and platelets for the many surgeries performed on Wednesday and Thursday.

Major arteries through the city were at a standstill for much of the week. Undeterred, David Beiser, MD, assistant professor of medicine, walked to the emergency room from his house in Hyde Park on snowshoes.

He said he was a lone figure across the four lanes of 55th Street. “It was completely desolate,” he said. Beiser attended the emergency room for his colleagues who couldn’t get in.

Similarly, other physicians, nurses, caregivers and staff members worked extra shifts to fill in for their colleagues who could not get to the Medical Center safely. Grounds crews at the hospital removed piles of snow for days — clearing the paths to the emergency rooms, making sure the weight of the snow didn’t collapse any roofs, towing cars and keeping the sidewalks clean.

The environmental services team was especially appreciated as the emergency dragged on. Seventy-five environmental services workers stayed on site for three days, cleaning the entire hospital. Normally, 300 EVSs work in the hospital every day to handle the load.

Anita Williams, an EVS worker in the Department of Radiology, found that she was needed in many other areas. She caught a quick nap in Labor and Delivery on Wednesday night, and went back to work. “I was glad to be around to help,” she said. She added with a grin that her grandchildren at home probably would have kept her from sleeping during the storm, anyway.

The food service team served thousands of meals to all the people who worked through the storm. The lines were long and people were tired, but everyone got fed.

Huffman said he was amazed at the camaraderie that the blizzard brought out among the hospital staff. “You see the people with a sense of mission and passion for their work,” he said.

On Friday afternoon, with the roads clear and the excitement of the storm fading, Linda Garrett-Thomas, RN, carefully picked up a baby girl in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). She had arrived at work on Tuesday at 7 a.m., and slept in the NICU two nights. “Everyone was so pleasant,” Garrett-Thomas said. “We all wanted to be here.”

As Garrett-Thomas rocked the preemie, the girl’s family said they were relieved to be in the hands of a nurse they knew and trusted during the snowstorm. They thanked her repeatedly for offering her steady presence.

Garrett-Thomas said she has surprisingly good memories of staying with her colleagues and patients through the blizzard of 2011. “We are always going to remember this,” she said.

Rachel Zipsie became teary trying to thank all of the nurses who cared for her during the storm. She called them “the angels of the third floor.”

Jeanette Young-Luke, RN, BSN, said she and the other nurses on 3SW worked hard to make sure their patients to felt no disruption in their care because of the storm.

“We did it,” she said. “It was a team effort.”

David Beiser MD
Photo by Dianna Douglas

David Beiser, MD, made his way into the Emergency Room on snowshoes during the blizzard.