Texas hospitals rebounding after cold snap

It was sunny and 75° when Scott Driever, DVM, updated NEWStat on the vicious Texas cold snap that brought the state to a standstill—if you don’t count all the shivering in place—last week.

Driever, owner of Animal Hospital Highway 6 in Sugar Land, Texas, and an AAHA board member, said burst pipes are the biggest problem: “There are still a lot of people without water. You can’t get parts.”

A plumbing pipe shortage isn’t surprising, given how many millions of pipes burst in homes—and hospitals—across the state during the unprecedented cold snap.

Driever said his hospital got lucky: their water went out Sunday night when one exterior pipe broke, but there were no burst pipes or water damage in the hospital itself. The power went out but was back up on Wednesday. The water came back on Thursday. He says the important thing is that it’s on, and it’s safe: “We don’t have to boil it anymore.”

And while Driever occasionally boards animals, none had to be evacuated during the outage—an upside of the pandemic, Driever said, “Because no one is traveling.”

Driever says they didn’t see any patients that first day, but staff who could make it in used the downtime to good advantage, giving the entire hospital a deep clean—or as deep as they could with the lack of running water.

They were back to seeing patients on Thursday, but it wasn’t quite business as usual—rolling blackouts meant staff never knew when the power might go out or come back on, so surgeries were impossible to schedule.

Driever’s Hospital was luckier than many—he estimates that of the 10 hospitals in his immediate area, his was the only practice open on Thursday, and they caught the overflow—what he calls “quasi-emergencies:” “Upset stomachs, ear infections, things like that. Probably 40% of our caseload Thursday were patients we’d never seen before.”

“It was like a mini hurricane,” said Driever, who still remembers how his family had to move into the hospital to ride out Hurricane Harvey in 2017. “But instead of being down for two weeks, we were down for two days.”

Amy Vogt, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited Friendship Animal Hospital in Richmond, Texas, says lack of power closed her hospital for two days and they were open again on Thursday—even though their water was out for a week.

But only inside the hospital.

“Ironically, the sprinkler system outside was going nonstop,” Vogt said. “It was a lovely land of icicles.”

It was also a saving grace: she and her staff filled buckets and coolers of water from the outdoor sprinklers so they’d at least have water to flush the plumbing and mop the floors. “Veterinarians are nothing if not resourceful,” she laughed.

As for hospital staff, Vogt said almost everyone lost power in their homes and one-third had water damage from ruptured pipes. So even though the hospital was open again on Thursday, many staff were so busy holding down the fort at home they couldn’t make it to work. And, of course, the hospital lost a lot of revenue because even though they were back open, many clients were in the same boat as the staff, and too busy dealing with power outages and burst pipes to keep their appointments.

Despite the loss of revenue, Vogt wanted to make sure her staff didn’t have to sacrifice any paid time off while dealing with the devastation, so she and her manager created a separate “disaster” code so staff could still get paid. “You gotta take care of your people, right?”

The icy parking lot, though lovely, impacted curbside service. Vogt had to take rubber mats from inside the hospital and lay them down outside on some of the slipperier patches where people might be walking. She blocked off some parking spaces with traffic cones.

Brian Smith, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited Sienna Plantation Animal Hospital in Missouri City, Texas, told NEWStat that they’d warned their clients via social media on Sunday morning that the storm was on its way and they’d be closed Monday at the very least. The freezing temperatures kept them closed on Tuesday.

They reopened late Tuesday with water, but no power. They were, however, able to keep the lights on for the next couple of days with a generator that ran on natural gas. Nevertheless, Smith had no intention of trusting surgeries to backup power: “We had three days of procedures that didn’t happen.”

“I'm looking forward to seeing what the gas bill is going to be on that,” he said.

Smith said his hospital’s still rescheduling elective and wellness care procedures canceled during the storm, but they’re pretty well caught up.

He counts his hospital lucky. “We didn’t have any burst pipes at the hospital. I know many others that weren’t so fortunate.” Even in his own neighborhood, he said, “There’s a plumber at every house.”

Like Driever, Smith remembers Hurricane Harvey and the post-Harvey flooding. “This region has been pretty well hammered by natural events recently,” he observes. But he said the profession always pulls together: “Texas hospitals are generally very eager to help each other in times of crisis, and that certainly showed up this time as well.”

Photo courtesy of Amy Vogt

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