What to Do If You Have a Medical Emergency During Hurricane Sandy

Tips from area experts.

As of 1 p.m. this afternoon, it’s “business as usual” at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, reports emergency department chief Robert Czincila. With Hurricane Sandy currently ravaging the area—and reports saying she won’t let up until Wednesday morning—ER departments across the area are preparing for the worst. “We’ve gone over our down-time procedures in case we lose some part of the facility due to power failure. We have backup,” he says, adding that the diesel-powered generators at his brand-new hospital, which opened just last month, can keep the facility running for a few days before needing to be refilled.

Mark Ross, regional emergency preparedness manager for the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley Healthcare Council, says local hospitals are expecting a surge in patient admissions as the storm worsens. Hospital staffs are at full manpower, he says, and there have been no ambulance shortages reported.

If a medical issue arises during the next 48 hours, when should you go to the hospital, and when should you try sticking it out at home? “My advice to patients is to make contact with their primary-care provider if it’s not something that seems life threatening,” says Czincila. “With the advice of the PCP, they can call 911 if necessary, and the medics and police will be available.” Chest pains, obviously, justify a call to 911; common cold or flu symptoms do not.

Ross says there are scenarios under which ambulances will cease operations—high wind speeds, for one—but he doesn’t expect conditions related to Hurricane Sandy to warrant keeping responders in. Each county determines its own guidelines for when to call off ambulance service.

If you run out of a prescription medication, don’t rush to the hospital. Czincila says to contact your pharmacy first to see if they have it in stock. Your doctor could also call in a refill at a 24-hour pharmacy if timing becomes an issue, or if your pharmacy has closed due to weather conditions. Visit the hospital only if you have exhausted all other routes and if the prescription you need is an absolute necessity. (Heart medication, for example, might be a necessity. Birth control pills—not so much.)

For those on oxygen, nebulizers or other electricity-powered health devices, don’t head to the hospital just to preempt a power-outage. If your power does go out, Ross says to head to a Red Cross shelter instead of the hospital if you can. “They should take their oxygen and go to a shelter to be cared for,” he says. “They don’t need to go to the hospital if there’s not a medical need.”