Texas Dr. Natasha Kathuria has practiced medicine in 11 countries, worked through the 2014 “Snowmageddon” storm that paralyzed Atlanta, and survived last year’s COVID-19 pandemic.
But Kathuria and some other doctors in Texas say they have never seen a more harrowing week than this.
Unprecedented cold weather has cut off grid power and water supplies to hospitals across a wide swath of Texas. Electricity and water services were resuming, but many homes and some hospitals still had none as of Friday. Half of the state’s population was under a “boil” order to ensure the water is safe.
“We are overwhelmed, much more than we have been with COVID,” said Kathuria, who works in several Austin-area emergency rooms. “This system failure has completely shaken us in our emergency rooms and in our own homes.”
Many members of the hospital staff have stayed in the medical facility all week, knowing there was no heat or water at home. At least the hospitals have basic electricity generators. Some were transported with water to fill tanks or hired tanker trucks. Others had running but not potable water.
Doctors in Austin, Houston and the Dallas area said lack of water was their biggest problem. Dialysis machines do not work without water, surgical equipment cannot be sterilized, and hands cannot be washed.
Dr. Neil Gandhi, an emergency room physician and regional medical director for emergency departments at all seven Houston Methodist hospitals in the area, said those facilities were at 90% of their operational capacity Friday afternoon. At the beginning of the week, two were only able to receive emergency patients, Gandhi added.
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“In addition to the COVID pandemic, this has been a double trauma event for both our patients and our providers,” Gandhi said.
Ambulances had a difficult time reaching people on roads that weren’t clear because Texas cities have few snowplows and don’t have enough salt on hand. Doctors at freestanding emergency care locations who routinely call 911 for ambulances to transport patients to hospitals had to wait more than nine hours for them to arrive, if available.
Gandhi said that in Houston this week there were times when entire neighborhoods simply did not have any emergency medical services.
Hospitals installed portable toilets. Inside, patients’ toilets were flushed by dumping them into a bucket of water. Less critical dialysis patients delayed treatment, while others limited their time on the machines.
Rural Texas hospitals were not only attempting to treat patients in difficult conditions, but were also acting as de facto “warming centers” for the healthy, said John Henderson, president of the Texas Rural and Community Hospitals Organization.
Even with a warmer weather forecast for next week, there could still be a sea of broken water pipes and other damage.
“We were concerned that when the sun comes up and the temperature rises,” Kathuria said, “it’s not necessarily the end in sight.”
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