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Hospital staff hunkers down, stays on the job
Workers bunk at medical center between shifts during winter storm
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Nancy Barton described the staff sleep-in at Northeast Georgia Medical Center kind of "like a camping trip," as some 250 to 400 employees have stayed there since the severe winter weather started Sunday.

"It's been going quite well. There may be people who get cabin fever, their nerves may be frayed," said Barton, the hospital's director of clinical resource management. "But everyone has pitched in. It's as though there is an attitude that's being shared. We're here to help the patient and let's just get through it."

Central staffing is among Barton's responsibilities. That role intensifies during crisis situations, when hospital care involves a wide array of hands coming together at once to address a patient's health.

This is especially evident in the security room housing the hospital's "incident command center," a special organizational mode for unusual times like these, explained Cathy Bowers, public relations director for the health system.

Staff requests to stay at the hospital have been one of the more cumbersome tasks to coordinate with Barton and a team of three to four people scripting who, what, when and where on an hour-to-hour, day-to-day basis.

Those employees included nurses, lab technicians, environmental and nutrition services and others who did not want to risk driving to their homes and back. They slept in procedural areas, conference rooms, offices, recliners and on couches, two and three to a room at times. To conserve linens, most people folded up their sheets and covers and put them away until their next rest.

"We're not talking about Ritz-Carlton accommodations. We're talking about sleeping people," Bowers said. "They understand that and they come prepared. If they know they're going to be here for two or three days, they bring changes of clothes and stay overnight."

In return for their understanding, morale boosters have been incorporated into the hospital routine with movies and popcorns scheduled for those on staff who are off duty but still in the hospital. Some of that planning is a necessity since those who are finished with a shift have some time to fill while waiting for a bed to become available.

"They still have to have breaks," Bowers said, "I saw an e-mail go out that said they were going to play a movie and make popcorn for the people who are off of their work time but are still here. That was just a little something to keep morale up and give folks a break."

Coordination has been constant at the command center, which is structured as the "central resource" Bowers said, "for all of your essential services that coordinate and touch patient care in some way."

Administrators and staff began preparing for such an emergency mode last week and will continue its operation of the command center until current weather and travel conditions abate, Bowers said.

"It's a very efficient process, it's well planned out," she said. "It puts everyone calling one number for resources. So you don't have to spend time calling a lot of different departments."

Among the logistics funneled into the center are nutrition services, bed linens and environmental issues such as salting pathways and clearing ice.

In addition to staffing, hospital discharges and hospice care have been affected by the weather and associated travel problems.

So far there have been 23 delayed discharges, Bowers said, "where in-patients had to stay an extra day because roads to their homes were too treacherous for them to return home."

While the hospital's urgent care facilities and imaging centers have opened, hospice remains closed. However, in-home care providers had enough time to see to medication, oxygen, equipment and other needs for patients. They're also in contact with patients and family members, Bowers said.

Barton expects more staff will be returning home as well.
"There are not nearly as many requesting beds today as there were before," she said, adding she is planning to go home today.

The bedding process will continue as needed, she said.

"Last year, there were three times we had to sleep staff, but nothing of this magnitude," Barton said. "It is a process. Fortunately, we view everything as an opportunity. A debriefing is planned after it is over."

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