Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘We’re using all hospital waiting areas to treat patients’

Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

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Preparing for resiliency after a great quake

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Editor’s note: This in one of a series of fictional accounts that imagine what life in Whatcom County would be like after a great earthquake funded by the Riverstyx Foundation. Each episode offers preparedness tips and discussion points. Read more about the series here.

Episode 16 - Day 3

The next morning, I was awakened by pounding at my door again. This time it was Susan, the woman I had met in Fairhaven Park when the quake hit.

“Fred VanBuren needs to go to the hospital. I don’t know what to do!”

The day before, Susan and her daughter Melissa had taken in the elderly man and his wife Audrey. Now Fred, in his mid-80s, had been awakened by chest pains.

I went to get Carlos, who had been an MP in the Army and had some emergency medical skills.

When we got to Susan’s house, Fred was sitting in a big green easy chair in the dimly-lit room, with his anxious wife on one side of him and young Melissa on the other.

“I’ll probably be OK,” he said, but he didn’t look well.

Carlos took his pulse. Then he called out on his walkie-talkie.

“We gotta make another hospital run, Ernie.” He gave Ernie the address.

In a minute or two, Ernie was on scene. He was the exterminator guy I met in the hours right after the quake. He’d put the camper top back on the bed of his big rig, and had some padding in place inside. We got Fred and Audrey comfortable in there, and Carlos climbed in to join them.

I climbed into the cab with Ernie and off we went.

“This is my third hospital run already,” Ernie said.

“How’s your fuel supply?”

“Not a problem yet. I had ‘er topped off the day before the quake hit. I always try to keep a full tank. You never know.”

Big One (3)

“It must be chaos at the hospital.”

“Yeah, but it’s controlled chaos,” Ernie said. “They really seem to have their shit together. It actually surprised me … It was bad at first, though. When people saw that the hospital was the only place in town where the lights were still on, they moved toward the light like moths, even if they didn’t have anything wrong with them. But that’s mostly over with now.”

Here and there, streets had been shaken apart, but Ernie had already figured out a detour. We probably got to the hospital a little faster than normal, because there were no red lights and hardly any traffic.

As we pulled onto Ellis Street headed toward the main entrance, we found ourselves stopped in a line of vehicles.

Emergency room nurses were going up and down the line to find out what was what. We also saw two Bellingham police officers who had arrived on motorcycles.

A young woman in green scrubs climbed into the back of the pickup to examine Fred, after Carlos got out to make room for her.

I could hear her on a two-way radio, calling for assistance. In a few more minutes, another scrub-clad woman jogged up with a gurney, and Fred was strapped in and headed into the hospital. He managed a feeble wave as the woman wheeled him away.

Carlos and I hopped out to help, but she waved us off.

“I’m going to have to ask the rest of you to go to the St. Luke’s education center to wait. We’re using all hospital waiting areas to treat patients. We’ll report to you with information on your patient’s condition as soon as we can. And if you don’t absolutely need to be in the waiting area, please leave.”

We drove Audrey the short distance to the education center. She was shaken, but holding herself together.

“I can wait here with her,” I told Ernie and Carlos.

“We’ll come by to check on you this afternoon,” Carlos said.

Inside, I found Audrey one of the few empty chairs and I settled myself on the floor next to her in the gathering of anxious people. In one corner, a group of people were holding hands in a circle, praying. There was a lot of silent crying, a little sobbing.

A man with a Red Cross armband offered us bowls of chicken soup from the center kitchen. I took one. Audrey didn’t.

She sat quietly for a long time. Then she started talking.

“It’s been 65 years,” she said. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I know he hasn’t been well, but he never complains. The way he looked today, I fear the worst. Just yesterday he was playing gin rummy with little Melissa. She figured out he was letting her win, and she got mad at him until he won a couple of hands. I’m going to miss him so…”

“Well, you never know, maybe…” I said, feeling lame.

“You don’t have to bullshit me, sweetheart.”

That shut me up for a minute.

“You should probably have some soup,” I said.

She did. Not long after that, a volunteer chaplain stood before us.

“Are you Mrs. VanBuren?” she asked.

It was over. We sat in silence until Ernie came back to get us.

John Stark retired from The Bellingham Herald in 2014. His fictional account that imagines imagine what life in Whatcom County would be like after a Cascadia great quake is funded by the Riverstyx Foundation and also appears online at bellinghamearthquake.info.

Stay alert: Sign up for Bellingham Herald news alerts by text message at bit.ly/2G8amIy; sign up for Whatcom Emergency Alerts and get the AlertSense My Alerts app for your mobile phone in the Apple Store or from Google Play.

Take action: Family and neighbors are our first line of response in an emergency. As our fictional account wraps up Feb. 25, we’ll offer a printed map in the newspaper and downloadable maps online that will assist you in talking to your neighbors and taking note of skills and concerns that will help us all be more resilient and survive in the aftermath of disaster.

Today’s tip

Which of your neighbors has first aid training?

Peace Health St. Joseph Medical Center can keep critical electrical systems operating for up to nine days, using backup generators and the generator fuel stored on site. After that, additional fuel could be brought in by helicopter if tanker trucks are not available.

The hospital’s water supply could be more critical. There is a 48-hour supply on site. After that, water would have to be resupplied by truck or helicopter.

After a catastrophic earthquake, hospitals and clinics will need to prioritize life-threatening injuries and illnesses. Learn first aid and have supplies on hand. Know how to treat minor and moderate injuries yourself.