For some this meant preventing parents from running into the mayhem as their newborns were rescued from the neonatal intensive care unit. For others, like
me, it involved carrying patients down many narrow flights of stairs.
The depth of the potential for chaos is difficult to convey. The trek to the top floors of the building was a task in itself. With no means of mass
communication, patients were evacuated down staircases as swarms of people rushed in the opposite direction. I remember ascending to the third floor
landing as a nurse yelled, "NICU Patient coming down! Silence!" The stairwell fell silent. No one moved. Flattened against a wall, I craned my head to see
an orb of light. It was a phalanx of nurses guiding a doctor. I recognized the doctor; earlier in the year he taught my class how to conduct a
pediatric physical exam. Now, he held a baby in his arms and was manually ventilating the infant with one hand. The group moved forward silently, as one
organism, down the steps into the darkness. Then the frantic ascent resumed.
I eventually made it to the upper recesses of the building and found myself on the 17th floor at the bedside of a man who lay critically ill. He
was unconscious, recovering from liver failure and septic shock. There were tubes dangling from his body that connected to delicate IV drips, and the drips
connected to three 20-pound devices that measured the rates of infusion. He required an oxygen tank as well as a bulky monitor that measured all of his vitals
signs. I realized that if any of these devices were disconnected, this man would die.
When a volunteer announced that the stairwell was open -- a brief window of opportunity to move this patient -- I didn't think that it would be possible. All of
his equipment needed to go with him, down the narrow staircases, with absolutely no room for slack on any of the lines. The man weighed over 200 pounds. It
took about ten of us just to get him onto the transportation cot from his hospital bed.
In the intensity of the night, everything seems to have happened in minutes. In reality it took much longer. Five people carried the patient (with many
trailing behind, eager to lend a break to anyone who needed it). A post-doc in neuroscience held the IV monitors. He noticed the batteries were dying,
which added another element of pressure to move quickly. A nurse held the IVs. A first year medical student carried the vitals monitor and read off oxygen
levels as we all squeezed downwards, the way lit only by flashlight.
Like the newborn, the man lacked the capacity to breathe completely on his own, so someone manually pumped oxygen into his lungs as we carried him. At
one landing the oxygen tank ran out. A nurse quickly replaced it, and we started moving again.
We were forced to stop
once more, when the student with the fading vitals monitor announced that the patient's blood oxygen level was dropping. We worried that one of his lines had been disconnected. The doctors and nurses searched quickly, but all was in place. He was in respiratory distress. And then,
just like that, as if our collective will stared down the impending danger, the patient began breathing normally again.