Open 24/7: Mercy hospital employees put in long hours

February 10, 2011

It had several names. “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmeggedon” were two of the more popular expressions. But no matter what you called the winter blizzard of 2011, it certainly will be remembered as a time Mercy co-workers pulled together to make sure our patients continued to be well cared for.

Outside St. John’s Hospital in Springfield on Feb. 1, nearly 30 maintenance workers and contract vendors battled the elements on Bobcats, with shovels and a variety of other snow-and-ice-fighting tools as winds blew the white stuff at nearly __mph throughout the day.

“I think the snow is winning,” joked Dave Gollhofer, regional director of facilities. Gollhofer and team worked around the clock to clear nearly parking lots, sidewalks, entrance areas and roadways that wind their way across St. John’s campuses in multiple locations in Springfield.

By the time the groundhog peeked out his hole Feb. 2, nearly a foot of snow and about ¼ of ice had fallen in all of St. John’s Health System communities, leaving rural areas especially buried.

“It’s a challenge, but one we’re up to facing,” reported Bob Patterson, director of EMS. He described his rescue teams as “creative” and “never giving up” as they literally pushed through mountains of snow to respond to calls for help in parts near and far. “Since cab operations in the city were greatly disrupted and people simply couldn’t get around at all, this also increased the number of people needing our help getting to and from medical appointments.”

The National Guard provided assistance to St. John’s crews in multiple counties. They used Hummers to access the more remote and difficult locations.

Clinical staffing was top priority and an added challenge, as co-workers and physicians in all communities had a difficult time getting into work. Security teams and other co-worker volunteers with 4-wheel drive vehicles, however, staged an impressive logistical operation of getting staff and physicians back and forth from home and work. The Security department received around 1,000 calls on storm day 2, transporting about 250 people, Dwayne Doran, director of safety and security, said.

Chief financial officer Chris Knackstedt was among those who volunteered to transport co-workers to and from work at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield. “When I picked up one woman, she got in the truck and said, ‘you’re not the National Guard.’ I said, ‘no, I’m a guy from accounting.”

Hundreds of co-workers -  mainly nurses, certified nurse assistants and technicians, chose to spend overnights at hospitals to ensure they would be available to take care of their patients the next day. St. John’s Hospital – Springfield’s Hospitality House phone volume rivaled the Hilton’s reservation center as it became “accommodations central” throughout the week.

“It’s been really busy,” said Cathy  Rippe, hospitality house supervisor. Rippe kept the reservation center open 24/7 and stayed over herself a couple of nights.

St. John’s also provided rides and accommodations for patients and their families who might have trouble getting home. The hospital also provided child care for co-workers, with child care specialists providing movies and toys to entertain the children.

 “Kid care is being offered at hospital for those that need it again tomorrow. A huge help for many. Thank you,” Karen Velardi Harris posted on the St. John’s Health System Facebook wall Wednesday.

“Thank you for being concerned about us as employees,” echoed Lori Medearis.

Nursing supervisors Mary Ann Dahlgren and Tammy West and chief nurse executive Linda Knodel made sure that all hospital nursing units were staffed appropriately and that patient flow throughout the hospital wasn’t disrupted. Discharge planning was more crucial than ever as the challenges of getting patients home were compounded.

Other departments provided support to help with this problem. St. John’s Hospital outpatient pharmacy extended hours to 24/7 and provided discharged patients with three-day supplies of medications. “We realized that some retail pharmacies were closed and we wanted to make sure our patients had what they needed throughout the week,” said C.W. Powell, pharmacy services administrative director.  The cafeteria extended hours in the morning and evening to provide food service to the many co-workers spending the night. Environmental services set-up and managed the co-worker sleeping quarters, discharged patient comfort room and child care areas.

Health System leadership expressed gratitude in a memo sent to all co-workers.

“St. John’s co-workers and physicians always show extreme dedication and skill.  In times of crisis, however, that dedication is even more evident. I am both humbled and thankful to everyone who sacrificed time with their families, took on additional responsibilities and did whatever was necessary to make sure our patients continued to receive the highest level of care,” said Jon Swope, St. John’s Health System president / CEO.

Disaster Preparedness

St. John’s follows Hospital Incident Command structure, a system incident for handling incidents both small and large.  While this particular incident did not warrant a full disaster response, an incident command team assembled in Springfield Monday prior to the storm to proactively prepare. The team continued to meet three times a day to address ongoing issues. Representatives from nursing, supply chain, food service, environmental services, facilities, pharmacy, admitting, EMS, emergency department, safety and security, human sources and communications staffed the team.  Hospital vice president, administrator on call the week of the storm, served as incident commander.

Russ Conroy leads St. John’s disaster readiness efforts as our emergency preparedness coordinator.


Power - Because of underground utilities coming from a new substation just across Seminole from the St. John’s Hospital main campus, and other stability offered by City Utilities, it would be extremely rare, that the hospital would lose power. In the rare event St. John’s would need to go “off the power grid,” we can produce our own power within 10 seconds thanks to five unit Caterpillar engine/generator systems capable of producing 15,000 mw of power.

“Highly unlikely,” says Bob Norton, St. John’s Vice President of Facilities, about the need to rely on the generators, which can provide emergency power for more than 4 days. But stand-by power is necessary and required by law due to the critical need healthcare services have for high-load and reliable power. A two-second blip in service is enough to activate the generators.

That’s only happened a few times over the past few years, and the generators are tested monthly and twice a year given a “black start” where power from the hospital is cut before the load is moved to the generators to simulate an actual power emergency. Departments are notified prior to all generator testing St. John’s has four tanks with #2 diesel fuel oil buried next to the 33,000 square-foot Energy Center, located North of the main hospital. Total capacity is 80,000 gallons. Making the switch would help maintain natural gas pressure in the city, ensuring other citizens and businesses continue to have the necessary supply during a peak time such as this week’s cold snap.

Heat -  Switching to an alternative heating source is possible because St. John’s has four tanks with #2 diesel fuel oil buried next to the 33,000 square-foot Energy Center, located North of the main hospital. Total capacity is 80,000 gallons. Making the switch would help maintain natural gas pressure in the city, ensuring other citizens and businesses continue to have the necessary supply during a peak time such as this week’s cold snap.

“City Utilities does an excellent job providing utilities to us,” Norton said. CU is highly regarded for its ability to maintain a high-load factor and efficiently produce power. Norton also points out the difference in utility costs among Mercy’s other hospitals. St. John’s in Springfield pays significantly lower rates for electric, gas and water per unit than other Mercy Hospitals in other cities, according to Norton.

Supplies – St. John’s is fortunate to be a part of Sisters of Mercy Health System (Mercy), which has one of the top healthcare supply chain divisions in the country. The warehouse for this four-state operation is in north Springfield. In anticipation of the storm, Mercy added additional replenishment of critical supplies and have memorandums of understanding with various vendors to ensure medical and pharmaceutical supply levels are adequate.

Thanks to a federal grant funded by the Hospital Preparedness Program, the Missouri Hospital Association also provided the region with a cache of supplies located in three location across Springfield. St. John’s has the privilege of being the location for one of those caches. The cache is basic supplies for providing care, including 250 cots.  By the MHA allowing us to keep them at our warehouse, we were able to prepare these items before the storm started.

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