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Critical Tulsa hospital had power completely knocked out in June 2012

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
April 30, 2013

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Image courtesy News on 6


It’s been just about 6 months since Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast. And although most hospitals were prepared for the storm surge and flooding, two of perhaps the most well-known and distinguished in the medical community were overwhelmed: New York University’s Langone Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital. As we sit in the middle of tornado season, how prepared are Oklahoma hospitals?

Hospitals are built to take on unexpected challenges. A patient suddenly stops breathing. A sudden burst of visitors to the emergency room. A shortage of medication. But what about this?



Power outage. Completely. Gone. That’s what happened at St. John’s in Tulsa on June 30th of last year. No electricity for about 45 minutes, from 8:40 AM until 9:25. Ventilators and air compressors failed. Electronic records weren’t accessible. And the wounds of one patient in surgery had to be packed with  saline, antibiotic soaked sponges until power came back on.

“I think it was as transparent as possible. Our staff kept people updated and that everything was fine and the lights will come on soon.”

Lisa Medina is Vice President of Quality for St. John Health System. She and Brian Guentler, the hospital’s Director of Property Facilities, have since gone through how they could have lost power for so long, despite five emergency generators…

“This put some fear in us, just making sure all our systems were as capable as they could be.”

According to a Statement of Deficiencies report from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, all eight adults in the ICU needed manual ventilation because there weren’t enough battery powered machines to go around. And a patient arrived in the ER under cardiac arrest, but had to be resuscitated in an atrium because it was the only space with light. So how did this all happen?

“We found the weak link in that we had one component take us out. We talked about redundancy, in this case one component did take us out.”

The five emergency generators are more than enough to power essential hospital services…but one switch had flipped to closed instead of open, and in turn, prevented any power from making it out to the hospital floor.

Howard Levitin does emergency management consulting for more than 7-hundred hospitals through his company DQE:

“This type of event, this is a freak accident but this is why we prepare and do contingencies so at least the hospital is responding appropriately.”

Most of the state’s largest hospitals – including the only Level One trauma facility – OU Medical – don’t have any documented problems with power supply since 2004. Through Open Records requests, I reviewed hundreds of pages of documents for nine hospitals, and found clean records at hospitals like Integris Baptist and Mercy in Oklahoma City, Stillwater Medical, and Woodward Medical.

“100%, that’s why we test them. It doesn’t get put on the back burner, whenever it’s down, it gets repaired.”

As the power plant supervisor at Mercy in Oklahoma City, Larry Dander is responsible for making sure even in emergencies, they’re as prepared as possible. He and his bosses talk about a proactive approach to safety. Here’s Melissa Hackney, Director of Operations.

“If we get a drill that everything is perfect, we go back and do it again, because nothing is ever perfect.”

Another hospital in the Mercy system, St. John’s in Joplin, took a direct hit from the tornado in 2011, killing 5 patients and one visitor and destroying the facility. Since then, Weston Sterling and the security team have been determined to re-make their procedures.

“I have to prepare for that, but I don’t foresee it. We try to mentally prepare ourselves for it, but it may not happen. A complete power failure?”

And thus, the dilemma. Plans can be drawn up, but will administration spend the money to make sure all patients are safe. After all, when was the last time you saw a TV commercial or billboard touting the new generators at the neighborhood hospital? Again, consultant Howard Levitin.

“Would you rather invest in the latest CT scan? This is the frustration. DO I think things are improving? Sure. How to prioritize decisions. They lack the true understanding to do that.”

St. John’s had a plan for total power failure in their Rapid Response Guide, but not in the essential hospital services plan. Since then, it’s been added there. And they’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments…more emergency lighting, more equipment with battery backups, and new electrical equipment. Back to Brian at St. John’s…

“We beat ourselves up. We had these meetings every week. We were fortunate that it happened the way that it did, but what if.”

They have all this new equipment, better lighting, do monthly tests with staff watching all the equipment, and count themselves lucky no one was hurt during the complete failure. Inspections were up to date on the failed equipment, and the manufacturer had never seen the problem. But the design to the backup generator system remains the same, and so the question comes up again.

“You have a flat tire, is another one going to go flat? Yes, it always could. And the same is true here, what if it happens?”

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