Word of mouth gets help rolling

When Carolinas Medical Center got the call for help from a flood-stricken Indiana hospital, it wasn't through a sophisticated network of disaster preparedness officials.

It was old-fashioned word of mouth.

On June 13, leaders of Columbus Regional Hospital in southern Indiana were briefing more than 1,000 employees on how flood waters forced evacuation of 157 patients a week earlier.

CEO Jim Bickel told employees they would continue to be paid but that the emergency department would remain closed until August, and inpatient floors for three to six months.

When he asked for questions, Marcia Cupp, a medical technologist standing at the back of a high school auditorium, moved forward.

“I don't know if you're aware of this, but …” she began.

Then she explained she had worked for Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte in 2005 when it sent a mobile hospital to areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. She wondered if that unit might help in Columbus.

Immediately, Dr. Tom Sonderman, the hospital's chief medical officer, got on his Blackerry and brought up the CMC Web site. Within hours, he had contacted CMC.

“I didn't know what they'd think,” Cupp recalled in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But man, they got right on it.”

Nine days later, on Sunday Carolinas MED-1 – two 18-wheel tractor trailers that convert into an emergency department and operating rooms – set up operations in the Columbus hospital parking lot.

“That was a turning point on our road to recovery,” said Denise Glesing, spokeswoman for the Columbus hospital.

Minutes after MED-1 opened Sunday, an ambulance brought a patient suffering from respiratory failure. He was stabilized and sent to a larger medical center in Indianapolis.

Forty patients, including several with minor traumas, were treated Monday.

Employees of Columbus Regional's emergency department are staffing the one-of-a-kind mobile unit, with help from several CMC doctors and nurses, a smaller crew than the one sent to Mississippi.

“We aren't here as primary caregivers,” said CMC spokesman Scott White. “This is a disaster area, but it's not like it was in Mississippi where everything was gone and police were overwhelmed.”

Despite flooding in other parts of Indiana and the Midwest, Glesing said officials of the 225-bed, seven-story Columbus hospital did not foresee a problem on June 7.

At 3 p.m., the sun was shining and “things looked OK,” she said. By 4:30 p.m., water had reached the parking lot. By 5:30, “we realized we've got some issues.”

At its height, the water stood six to eight inches on the hospital's first floor. The basement – with pharmacy, laboratories, mechanical and electrical operations – was a total loss, Glesing said. Electricity and air conditioning went out, and patients were transferred to other hospitals by helicopters, ambulances and buses.

Since Cupp can't work in her basement lab, she is helping with the cleanup. And she's glad the emergency department is back, inside MED-1.

“Columbus isn't humongous. It's not like New Orleans,” Cupp said. “But we needed them really bad.”