6.30 pm, January 10th 1977 and the wind was gale force. The rain was torrential. I was the manager 'on-call' for my local hospital – a 140 bed unit mainly for older people and some younger people recovering from surgery.
I had just sat down for my evening meal at home when the phone rang. It was Ken - one of the porters at the hospital just ringing me to tell me, for information, there was a problem with the drains in the car park. It seems the manhole covers were lifting through water pressure and Ken understood the tidal river that ran through the town had flooded as the high winds coincided with unusually high spring tides. I asked if there was anything I could do but Ken told me things were ok and all seemed calm despite rumours of chaos in the town.
No sooner had I put the phone down when a neighbour came round in a panic to tell me the river had indeed flooded and the town was under water in places. Emergency vehicle sirens could soon be heard all over the town and I felt it may be a good idea for me to go in and check things were in fact ok at the hospital. I was concerned because the hospital was only about 200 yards ‘as the crow flies’ from the river so if there was a problem it is likely that the hospital may be affected.
As I reached the hospital car park in my car I was amazed at the sight that met me. The entire car park and the drive leading to the hospital was flooded to a depth of at least two feet and I had to leave my car and try to walk to the main entrance to establish quite what was going on. Why hadn’t I had a follow up call from Ken?
The scene was total chaos and I decided to walk to the main entrance in the clothes I was wearing. As I passed one of the new buildings in the grounds on my way to the main entrance I was by now up to my waist in freezing water and couldn’t help noticing the new furniture floating in our pride and joy building – the new Day Hospital that had been opened just a month or so previously.
When I finally got into the hospital Ken greeted me with the news that all power had been lost including telephones and as this was of course before the days of mobile phones the hospital was completely isolated and yet in the middle of the town!
So there I was at age 24 – still ‘green around the ears,’ still learning my trade and suddenly faced with a major incident.
It was now 9 pm and the only people at work on the premises were the night nursing staff the porter and me. This was a total of about 10 people. There were well over 100 patients whose welfare was of course our greatest concern.
I wandered around the hospital to speak to the people on the six wards to make sure things were ok. Obviously the one ward on the ground floor was our biggest concern and that ward had about six inches of dirty water covering the floor.
We decided to use one office as our base and those who could be spared came to the office for a quick meeting to plan what we could do for the rest of the night.
The truth is we were making this up as we went along. Yes there were polices and procedures that had been written in
the warmth of a comfortable office, probably in the middle of summer. Here we were in the middle of winter in a violent storm with no power and over 100 vulnerable patients. And we could not communicate with the outside world.
We developed some plans on the hoof and gradually three or four more people battled their way to the hospital main entrance as the depth of the water in the drive continued to rise. Eventually we managed to set up a primitive form of communication. The local Sea Scouts organisers came up to the hospital entrance in a boat! They delivered a loud haler which meant we could communicate with people wanting to offer help as word got around the town that the hospital was in effect cut off. We were overwhelmed with offers of help and we had to make priorities about what we needed.
After a few hours the telephones were re-connected but we had no power until the following day. The ten of us kept in touch by constant walking round the hospital bringing folks up to date with any news we could find out.
As daylight broke the water finally began to subside and at last the hospital became reachable. In the meantime we had moved the most vulnerable and ill patients from the ground floor to higher levels to escape possible infection from the dirty water. All the patients were given extra blankets – remember we had no heating!
During the following day we evacuated 120 or so patients to various hospitals all over the region and it was just incredible to find myself at my tender years to be in charge- by default - of such a major incident. Amazing learning.
The miracle is that no patients lost their lives overnight although sadly a couple of patients died a day or two later in the hospital we managed to evacuate them to. It was felt by the nurses that the trauma of the event itself contributed to the patients’ demise.
I have many vivid memories of that night. The overwhelming learning is about how, at times of great adversity, ‘unconnected’ people can work together as a wonderful team and ‘deliver’ effectively even though there is no precedent, no plan and no experience of dealing with such a major incident. A wonderful experience and I was so proud to be a member of that team.
‘Make it up as you go along’ works as a strategy sometimes. Policies help and act as a guide but sometimes you just have to get on and ‘do it.’