The Midnight Evacuation of NYU Medical Center

Being a part of getting 200 sick people out of a dark, silent, 18-story hospital

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Ambulances lined First Avenue in anticipation of patients being evacuated as Hurricane Sandy made its approach in New York, October 29 [AndrewKelly/Reuters]

I am a medical student at NYU, and I live directly across the street from NYU Langone Medical Center and Tisch Hospital. Last Monday night, these buildings flooded, and PSE&G shut off electricity to all buildings below 40th Street. And then, as you've probably heard, the unthinkable occurred: the hospital's backup power generator failed.

I was asleep in my apartment around midnight when someone knocked on my door. It was one of the other medical students, alerting everyone to what had happened. The medical center needed volunteers to help evacuate more than 200 patients, in the dark, without elevators, from all 18 floors of the hospital.

We've all heard stories and seen movies about disasters where people react in unison to unimaginable situations, as if brought together by a higher power. Now I understand exactly what that feels like. When I arrived at the medical center, friends and classmates were everywhere. It was amazing. Everyone was determined to help.

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.

We eventually made it down to the first floor and got the man onto a stretcher and off to an ambulance. I don't know who he was or where he ended up, but I know he made it out of our hospital alive.

These are just two among many of powerful moments that took place this week at NYU Tisch, Bellevue, and the VA Hospital -- and throughout areas affected by Sandy. Hopefully in the wake of the storm, thinking about the excellence of humanity that shows through in these sorts of events can provide some solace.