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Official says hospital staff resilient

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Resilient and focused — that's how Thomas Health System's vice president described hospital staff efforts to get through the days without water last month.

Brian Ulery, the hospital's vice president, said the leak also put into perspective the importance of training, which he said is something hospitals around the nation can realize after seeing it in action.

The hospital's response to the chemical leak came up for discussion in Thursday's board meeting. Following this meeting, Ulery recalled the day it happened and how pleased he was to see training and preparation put in action.

"No one panicked; no one was concerned," he said. "They knew they had the plan because of preparation and it was great to see."

On Jan. 9, a mixture of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, and propylene glycol phenyl ether (PPH stripped) leaked from Freedom Industries into the Elk River and ended up contaminating the water supply for 300,000 people in nine counties. MCHM is a cleansing agent used in coal processing.

That night, Thomas received word about the water ban and staff opened command centers to come up with a plan to get through the water ban.

"Our first priority was what do we need to do to ensure proper care for however long this may be," Ulery said. "Watching everyone really work together as a team was incredible."

It wasn't an easy journey, though. Like other hospitals in the area, Thomas had to find other sources of water from Thursday night until Monday, when the hospital was cleared to flush.

And the flushing process is a much more laborious process than it is for a typical home. Ulery said it took about 9 to 10 hours to flush and the hospital wasn't back in full operation until Tuesday morning.

For the first day, staff went around shutting off every sink in the system, providing an almost ironic twist for something that has become so routine and necessary for hospital employees.   

"We didn't want anyone to accidentally wash their hands," Ulery said. "We're running a hospital in 2014 and for decades, we've been telling people the importance of hand-washing. It has become such a routine process with everyone that we had to go in and make sure to take away their ability to contaminate themselves."

The hospital canceled all elective procedures for the day following the leak and had to look to other hospitals for help, especially when it came to sterilizing equipment. Unfortunately, many of the local hospitals had the same problem.

"We were looking for hospitals relatively close by that could sterilize. By the time Friday afternoon came around, it was obvious CAMC couldn't sterilize everything and we couldn't sterilize everything needed," he said.

Officials reached out to the National Guard. This later led to discussions with the National Guard's Civil Support team and chemists, who recommended boiling out the chemical.

The Department of Health and Human Resources sent a letter to hospitals Jan. 11, notifying officials that water with trace amounts of MCHM could be used for sterilizing surgical instruments.

"During the steam sterilization process, (MCHM) will be turned into vapor and vented during evaporation," the letter states. "There will be no residual chemical left on the instruments due to the temperature reached during the sterilization process. Accordingly, hospitals are encouraged to immediately begin steam sterilization of surgical instruments as they see fit to provide the necessary medical care for their patients."

That temperature chemists determined to rid the water of MCHM is 250 degrees and Ulery said the sterilizers heat up to 270 degrees. Before water actually touched the sterilizer, he said, the chemical was boiled out.  

Ulery notes the hospital also never missed a hot meal, providing meals prepared with bottled water.

"The only difference is instead of being able to use the plates, we served everything on paper plates and disposable forks and knives."

Fortunately, Ulery said this didn't create too much of a trash problem because of how frequently trash was picked up. The biggest problem at first was storing bottled water.

"We had probably at one point 100 pallets of water here and it was about 7 feet tall," he said. "At the beginning part of the crisis, we didn't know if it was actually going to have reliable deliveries moving forward."

Even after the ban was lifted, it's still not over quite yet. Ulery said staff still is tallying the final bill from the water issues.

The OB unit also still is using bottled water upon request to wash newborns. And some people still are asking questions about tap water use but Ulery notes it's not an overwhelming amount.

Overall, Ulery said the process has taught him not only about his team at the hospital but also about the community.

Ulery notes he was born in Elkins but hasn't lived in the Mountain State until he got the job at Thomas three months ago.

He said watching the staff and community pull through the crisis made him proud to come back home.

"People were here working 15 to 18 hours without breaks . . . all to make sure patient care was unaffected. And the duty to patients and fellow practitioners taught me a lot about the human condition and people in this valley. It made me really glad to be home," he said.

"It was a little nerve-wracking to my family that it had occurred but when I saw how this hospital and how the team pulled together, it brought a sense of calm to me and my family watching how it worked out," he later added. "Just the resiliency and a single-minded focus on patients. I think it should be a model to anyone who goes through a crisis."

And Ulery said hospitals' experience through the chemical leak can teach others the importance of training.

"Those who think it can never happen to them would be in a world of hurt because who would ever expect that they couldn't drink, bathe or wash in the water coming out of your tap?"

Contact writer Andrea Lannom at Andrea.Lannom@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-5148. Follow her at www.twitter.com/AndreaLannom.


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