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Hospitals Prepare for the Worst

Nearby states help with World Trade Center casualties as national disaster-aid system is activated

TUESDAY, Sept. 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- As Washington and Manhattan-area hospitals begin to treat possibly thousands of casualties from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, medical teams nationwide have been put on alert to help, the first time the government's disaster aid system has been activated.

On Tuesday, Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, activated the National Disaster Medical System, a federally coordinated plan of emergency response. This means that 80 medical disaster teams from across the country could be deployed at any moment to help in the aftermath of the catastrophes, the secretary said in a statement.

In the New York area, disaster victims were being dispatched to many area hospitals. Washington hospitals announced they were treating dozens of victims of the Pentagon attack.

Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey had accepted 450 patients by mid-afternoon, and "that maxes them out," said Mark D'Antonio, media relations coordinator for Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.

D'Antonio said that some victims had been put on commuter trains for Stamford and Bridgeport in Connecticut. Stamford is about 45 miles northeast of Manhattan; Bridgeport is about 70 miles away; New Haven is about 90 miles away. Stamford has a large hospital near the train station; Bridgeport Hospital is the local burn center, affiliated with Yale-New Haven Health System.

"We are on the highest alert here," D'Antonio added. Yale-New Haven, one of the most prestigious teaching hospitals in the country, is the only trauma center in the state that can serve both adults and children. The hospital had not been asked for assistance by late afternoon, but they had alerted staff that they may be called in and shifts might be extended.

On Long Island, there were reports that patients in hospitals closer to Manhattan were being moved to facilities farther out on Long Island to make room for potential disaster victims.

One of the metropolitan area's major burn centers is in Westchester County, about 30 miles north of Manhattan. A spokesperson said that the center's helicopter had been bringing in burn victims almost non-stop all day long.

In uptown Manhattan, at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, one of five "level one" trauma centers in New York City, dozens of doctors and nurses awaited the arrival of the first victims. Twelve beds lined the sidewalk outside of the emergency room, which can treat up to 100 people at one time.

There is also a "hosing truck" to detoxify patients who might have been contaminated with such bio-terrorist tools as anthrax, said Dr. George L. Unis, the hospital's chief of orthopedics, who was helping to execute the hospital's disaster response.

Because communication was initially spotty in Manhattan in the wake of the attack, Unis said St. Luke's-Roosevelt -- which is about 6 miles north of the disaster site -- had had some limited contact with city rescue workers. But communications were up and down, Unis said, "so right now we're working on our own disaster plan."

Sandra Hiberger, the site vice president at St. Luke's-Roosevelt, said, "All non-essential activities had been cancelled."

Hospital chaplain Francis Geer said St. Luke's has conducted numerous drills to prepare for emergencies.

As for his role today, he said, "I will listen, comfort and pray. Often in emergencies, like car accidents, there is family with the victim. But people will be coming alone right from the site."

Moved by television coverage of the carnage, many neighboring residents and students at nearby Columbia University were streaming into the hospital to give blood or offer volunteer services.

Also nearby, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was setting up a facility to receive donated blood.

"Just seeing all the smoke and people running and crying, I had to come to the closest hospital," said Adrienne Barbes, a 23-year-old Columbia University student and registered nurse from Michigan, who was helping to set up the blood bank.

Also volunteering at the cathedral was John Lopez, Jr., an emergency medical technician on a vacation from California.

"We were going on a bus to the Statue of Liberty and it was 20 minutes late. Then we heard sirens. My mom wanted to come in here and pray, and I wanted to do something to help," he said.

So did Columbia University graduate students Brian Weinstein, 27, and Scott Ostfeld, 24. "We want to do something," Weinstein said.

By early afternoon, emergency-response experts said it was too early to assess the effectiveness of the rescue effort in New York City.

"I think we have to wait and see and try and support the hospitals and the emergency responders," said Dr. Tara O'Toole, of the center for civilian biodefense studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"One of the potential horrific things is, it sounds like a lot of emergency responders at the Trade Centers were injured or killed. That's going to have a profound effect on everybody," O'Toole said.

What To Do

Blood is needed; to give, go to your local Red Cross, which is better equipped than hospitals to deal with a national emergency need, says D'Antonio.

For more details on the disaster, go to CNN and the Boston Globe.

SOURCES: Interviews with Mark D'Antonio, media relations coordinator, Yale-New Haven Hospital, in Connecticut; Sandra Hiberger, site vice-president, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, Manhattan; George L. Unis, M.D., chief of orthopedic surgery, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, Manhattan; various participants
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