An imaginary crisis yesterday morning triggered the mock evacuation of patients from the UPMC Rehabilitation Hospital in Squirrel Hill to a safe harbor at the South Side.
The need to move 24 patients with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries to the new Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, a facility on two renovated floors of UPMC South Side, provided an opportunity to run an evacuation drill.
“Nobody’s ever done it” in Pennsylvania, said Dr. Ross Zafonte, director of the new institute. “What are the procedures necessary to evacuate a hospital?”
Before the big event, medical staff determined which patients were most ill and should be transferred sooner. Ambulances and wheelchair vans were used for transport.
Clark Goodwin, 73, of Shaler, had been in the Squirrel Hill rehab hospital for a week and was among the first to make the move. His spine was severely damaged in a fall May 30, leaving him unable to move his hands or legs. He underwent surgery and his doctor said he might spend four to six weeks in rehab as he regains some functions and adapts to his injury.
Like the other patients, Goodwin was informed of the move, and he was comfortable with the idea of being part of an evacuation drill.
“It probably is a necessity,” he said. “Plans should be worked out and tried.”
To streamline the transfer, families took all but essential personal items home the night before. The remaining items were packed in blue plastic bags. Each patient was assigned a buddy, such as a nurse, an aide, a physical, occupational or speech therapist, or a therapy student.
“It’s to make sure he transfers safely back and forth, to make sure all his belongings are there,” explained nursing assistant Mamie Williams, Goodwin’s buddy. She rode with him in the ambulance, held on to his medical chart and phoned his wife when he got settled in his new room.
As would happen in a disaster scenario, a command center, complete with red hotline phones, was established to monitor and direct activity.
A special software package connected coordinators in Squirrel Hill to those at South Side so patients could be tracked during their transfers, said Sue Cox, vice president for rehabilitation operations. It also helped them quickly send people and extra equipment where they were needed.
“We’re trying out some of the UPMC system things that we’ve never used in a real-life situation,” Cox said.
In the process, they learned a few things. For example, the Squirrel Hill people found out they couldn’t connect to cell phones at the South Side hospital, perhaps because of a lead-lined area at the hospital.
The move went so smoothly that it finished more than two hours ahead of schedule.
About 35 patients had already been admitted to the new 60-bed South Side institute, which has clinical and research programs in brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke and other neurological problems.
The Rehab Hospital’s Squirrel Hill building was purchased for $9 million by the adjoining Children’s Institute, which will use the building to expand its programs.