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Army hospital powers through record-breaking winter storms

A military medical center covered in snow Brooke Army Medical Center endures a deluge of snowfall at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Feb. 18, 2021. Services at BAMC were limited for several days during two record-setting winter storms. (Courtesy of Brooke Army Medical Center)

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With record-cold temperatures and potential power outages looming in South Central Texas last week, Brooke Army Medical Center immediately launched into action to ensure continuity of patient care despite the impending storms.

With safety at the forefront and to conserve resources, BAMC first delayed all non-urgent medical appointments and procedures to ensure emergency services and trauma support to the city remained unaffected. This measure enabled patients and non-emergency-essential staff to stay off icy roads and safely at home.

“As a Level I Trauma Center, it is vital that we maintain our critical care mission and support to our community partners, while ensuring the safety and well-being of our service members, patients and staff,” said BAMC Commanding Army General Brig. Gen. Shan K. Bagby.

To ensure continuity of care, BAMC’s healthcare professionals stayed for hours past their shifts, in some cases overnight, until icy roads thawed and personnel relieving them could safely travel to the hospital.

Many staff members went above and beyond, pitching in to replenish supplies and aid with bed coordination for staff needing to stay overnight. In one case, nursing supervisor Michelle Garrish spent three nights in the hospital to help cover shifts, while Army Staff Sgt. Russell Johnson offered to pick up staff who were unable to drive in. Air Force 1st Lt. Cruz Williamson stayed three hours past her shift, with another three hours spent driving to her house, which was without electricity. Still, she assured her supervisor she would just take a quick nap in case she needed to come back to work.

These are just a few examples of the many contributions over the past week, noted Army Lt. Col. Jody Brown, deputy commander for inpatient services. I am enthusiastically grateful to work with this outstanding team of professionals,” she said. “The communication and unity of effort across the hospital was superb and a testament to the team’s training and professionalism.”

With the ongoing below-freezing temperatures and intermittent snow and ice, BAMC also temporarily closed outlying clinic services for the week to include COVID screening and testing and vaccine administration.

“We made some difficult decisions with safety at the forefront,” Bagby said.

Additionally, at the request of CPS Energy and as part of Joint Base San Antonio’s city support, BAMC transitioned to generator power for close to 48 hours earlier this week to aid the community’s power conservation efforts. The city’s power reached critical levels this week due to the increased demand on the system, spurring many planned rolling power outages across the region to conserve power.

“BAMC was well-prepared to provide this community support,” said Army Col. Michael Wirt, BAMC deputy commanding officer. “About a year ago, BAMC completed an extensive upgrade to the central energy plant, bringing the latest power technology to the facility. Additionally, BAMC personnel train to respond to power outages, both planned and unplanned, throughout the year to ensure their readiness for a real-world event.”

The power transition, which was transparent to patients, did not impact BAMC’s inpatient care mission or support of the city’s trauma mission. Alongside University Hospital, BAMC is one of two Level I Trauma Centers in the region, providing support across a 26,000-square-mile, 22-county expanse. 

“We have an active and long-standing partnership with the community, which enables us to act as a cohesive, efficient system in times of crisis,” said Air Force Col. Patrick Osborn, deputy commander for surgical services. “I am deeply impressed with the BAMC team’s contributions as well as the incredible efforts of our emergency services personnel across the city.”

BAMC’s ongoing training and recent response to the pandemic were key factors in the hospital’s rapid and successful response to the weather this week, Bagby noted.

“Over the past year, we have been leveraging virtual health, telework and operational flexibility with great success,” he said. “Our training and experience were huge contributors in our ability to respond quickly, calmly and with expertise over the past week. I am incredibly proud of our staff and their determination to put our patients first in all that we do.”

Staff are not the only ones well-versed in continually evolving conditions, Bagby added. “Our patients have also exhibited resilience, support and understanding, not just over the past week, but throughout the entire year.”

With warmer weather anticipated this weekend, BAMC will resume services and continue its COVID response of screening and testing and vaccinating eligible phase 1b personnel next week.

As for the staff, the weather event will mark another challenge surmounted in an already difficult year.

“I am so proud and grateful for the way our people rise to this and every occasion,” said Air Force Col. Heather Yun, deputy commander for medical services. “Every one of our teammates has been personally affected by the storm, but nevertheless show so much compassion, empathy, diligence and professionalism. We will all have stories to tell after this week, and we will be telling stories of grit, care and an incredible community that rose to yet another remarkable occasion.”

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