“Con-Ed called. We’ve got half an hour of power left and 204 patients to evacuate before the backup generator fails,” the grad student explained as our small group of volunteers closed in on his impromptu pep talk.
“The nurses are bringing the babies down first,” he continued, shifting his eyes from side to side nervously.
The rest of us stood in the med center lobby blinking back at him. Hadn’t we come to carry med equipment to dry ground like the group of students who’d shown up before the hurricane hit? Would we really be tasked with hauling sick people to safety?
“Bringing the babies down!” someone whispered as the lobby lights sputtered overhead and we prepared to join the rest of Manhattan in vast black.
“What is this, Titanic?” Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd.
I glanced around. Much of our group was comprised of petite 23-year-old girls donning ponytails and spandex still fresh from their first month of medical school. Aside from a few able-bodied students, we were a flimsy bunch that hadn’t hit the gym in months. Not one of us had ever cared for patients, let alone carried them down 16 flights of stairs.
Hell, I wasn’t even supposed to be here. I’d snuck inside the med center lobby holding Ivan’s hand as he flashed his med school badge at a distracted security guard. I knew nothing of this sterile world with its scrubs, rubber gloves, and delicate HIPPA processes, having spent the past year at a start-up in an open office overlooking Park.
Just minutes before Ivan and I had slogged back to his apartment after a close-up view of the flooding on First Avenue – a gawker tour of the dangling street lights, overturned bus shelters, and a bobbing Ford when his classmate fell into us distressed and drenched in sweat.
“They need help over there, guys,” he said between pants, gesturing toward the spasm of flashing lights across the street. “They really, really, really need help,” he added breathlessly, explaining that cadavers were floating in the med center basement. Electricity was scarce, cancer research labs submerged.
So here we were.
Outside the hurricane winds howled and beat against the glass, whistling through cracks in the industrial-grade windowpanes. Three dozen ambulances sat like ducks in a row just before the lobby doors. Paramedics posed alongside stretchers preparing to greet the onslaught of patients who’d be hoisted down steps on plastic sleds.
All around us the room lurched in colorful circles like a Coney Island carousel. Nurses head-to-toe in mint scrubs. Doctors in white-coats. Firemen bundled in black and yellow striped jackets. Camouflaged military personnel. The displaced poor in subdued hues.
Strangers pushed past us clutching clipboards, lanterns, flashlights, bags of belongings and piles of linen. Hospital staff towed oxygen and IV drips.
Reality set in. Just days before I’d moved to a new apartment where I’d complained that my office job had left me too weak to carry IKEA furniture.
“My upper body strength is shit,” I’d declared then.
Today I kept my mouth shut. And now our misfit group of twenty-somethings was set to usher patients down stairs alongside firemen and the National Guard, some of whom had surely served during the city’s last disaster in ‘01.
“What if I drop someone?” I thought, picturing a patient tumbling away from my open fingertips.
Then adrenaline washed over me and hardened my body like the deadweight corpses floating below. There wasn’t room left in this lobby for self-doubt. Patients upstairs counted on medical devices to survive. Without power, they could die.
And those patients were housed on the top floor.
The biggest misconception about catastrophes is that there are people with answers present. That there’s a plan. That despite years of half-assed fire drills, staff can locate the second, or third, set of stairs when the elevator’s down. That there are extra batteries stashed in closets. That things move quickly.
It took an hour to get to the top floor. Staff and patients came down and aid crept up. Long waiting periods were spent with volunteers stuck on staircase landings watching nurses briskly carry sick babies by as everyone else moved to the side.
With no working phone lines, the nursing staff had no way of knowing we’d headed up to help. And with hallways pitch black, it was impossible to see the group of 30 people who’d clogged the stairwell from above. So it was up a few flights, and then a distant call that staff was rushing down with a sick child. We’d all pile onto an eerie hospital floor and gather round carts lined with medical devices. It made me wonder if we’d just walked onto a horror film set. Or stepped in someone’s way.
Up a few more flights. Pause and wait. Up again.
When we finally arrived at the ICU panicked staffers were pacing back and forth. Their eyes grew big as we approached the nursing station.
“Who are you!?”
“Medical students. We’re here to help carry,” someone from our group explained.
“Who sent you up?”
“Uh.. we don’t know. A grad student. Some guy in the lobby.”
“Thank God. This is amazing,” one nurse answered, instructing us to line plastic sleds with blankets and loosen the straps so we could tuck patients inside.
Then we formed groups of four and waited more outside patients’ rooms as the orderlies determined the order of evacuation. Twenty-eight patients needed to be carried down.
“Let’s do Esther. Then Jack. Then Li,” one nurse rattled.
An elderly Latino man covered in wrinkles with a breathing tube snaked up his nose slid past us as nurses hauled his sled toward the stairs. He had to be upwards of 80 years old. Like most of the older patients on this floor, he had no friends or family present. The hurricane had snapped the city’s power lines and there was no good way to inform family members that patients were being moved.
“¡Ay Dios Mio! ¡Ay Dios Mio!” the man cried over and over as he frantically tried to make sense of the black room.
“Oh my God!”
A Latino nurse instructed colleagues in English and simultaneously assured her patient that “Está bien.”
“Está bien, Santi!” She repeated calling him by name.
I could only imagine what this man was thinking as he was tugged down a dark hospital corridor calling on God.
My Darling was a feisty old woman with broken ribs who we’d strapped into a sled with her oxygen tank and bladder bag. And she was pissed.
First we entered her room with the sled and explained that everyone was moving to a new hospital because of the hurricane.
“I know it sounds crazy,” one nurse added after detailing the evacuation plan. “But we’re going to take the stairs.”
My Darling looked like it was 1960 and a teenage daughter had served up news of an unplanned pregnancy at dinner.
We slid the plastic sled under My Darling’s back and rolled her onto her side, then eased her flat again as she cried in pain.
“My ribs!” she hollered. “I have broken ribs.”
“We’re sorry,” the head nurse cringed. “Just hang in there, My Darling. Breathe through your nose. Deep breaths. That’s it.” The nickname was born.
The nurse handed me a bulky medical monitor with three chords attached.
“Here. Take this, and keep an eye on the SaO2,”. Let me know if it goes below 80,” she explained.
“The what?” I replied hesitantly. Now that I’d mentally prepared myself to carry the sled, I’d been tasked with tracking this woman’s vital signs. Perfect.
“The SaO2,” she repeated, tapping the screen. “The green one,” she added, which measures oxygen flow.
After loading her onto the sled our team eased My Darling to the floor and dragged her gently through the crowded, black hallway to the stairwell entrance where we waited for our chance to commandeer the 16 flights downstairs.
But before we’d made it down a single step, My Darling grew uncomfortable and started shouting.
“My ribs!” she cried out again and again. I wanted to drop the monitor and draw my hands to my ears to drown out the sound of her howls.
Every one of My Darling’s cries made me cringe and stare deep into the medical monitor where the SaO2 was now dropping steadily below its safety net.
“It’s below 80,” I whispered, trying to be courteous since My Darling was within earshot.
“It’s below 80,” I tried louder, tugging on the nurse’s sleeve to get her attention.
The nurse dropped to her knees and began working her fingers over the chords that kept My Darling stable, refastening a blood pressure monitor to her wrist. Urging My Darling to take “slow, steady breaths.”
The nurse was visibly upset now, convinced that the chords just weren’t syncing up with the device properly, terrified that her patient was losing oxygen – and quick – because of stress. Time and time again she worked her fingers over the chords and fiddled with the tape that fastened the chords to My Darling’s wrist. Then she’d pinch and prod things, switch chords around.
Finally, exasperated, the nurse announced, “Fuck it. I’m making an executive decision. Let’s go.”
Carrying My Darling down the stairs was an uncomfortable process for all. First she’d cry that she was in pain – “My ribs!” – Then I’d watch the green number drop, likely in response to her stress and exertion.
“79,” I’d rattle.
“Don’t say that!” My Darling snapped. “This is horrible.”
“It’s horrible for you? It’s horrible for us listening to you scream the whole way down,” joked a sarcastic firefighter who’d joined our crew at the last minute to support the heaviest end of the sled where My Darling’s feet and her oxygen tank lay.
“What is this, the Empire State building?” My Darling croaked. Everyone laughed.
“God help us,” she followed quietly, furrowing her brows in pain.
“There is no God tonight,” replied the firefighter who’d likely spend the next several months dealing with the hurricane’s aftermath as Winter crept in.
“Yeah there is,” My Darling shot back definitively.
The lobby was lined with stretchers and ICU patients, mostly old men with tufts of white hair and soft, wrinkled cheeks. Nearly all of the patients had breathing tubes worked into their nostrils, and IVs running the length of their arms. Most sat upright surveying the chaos with big eyes while the ambulance lights waltzed across the walls and ceiling.
There were no names exchanged and no goodbyes. I turned around and began the long ascent upstairs where I found another stoic firefighter on the landing.
“So what round is this? How many ya carried?” he joked shining a flashlight in my eyes. These guys were great at injecting normalcy into an otherwise hellish situation.
“I’m on two,” I replied. “Any updates? What’s going on out there?” I asked.
“Thirty houses burnt down in the Rockaways. And the Coney Island hospital’s on fire,” he explained with a blank face.
“Jesus. What about Battery Park?”
“Long Island? Jersey? Queens?”
“And Staten Island’s a shitshow,” he added poignantly, though I hadn’t thought to ask.
It was the first and last time I’d hear mention of Staten Island that night, but the fireman’s closing remark lodged itself into my mind and remained there for days. Each morning following the evacuation I’d scale the papers for mention of Staten Island. I eventually saw headlines three days later declaring that half of all deaths from Sandy occurred there.
The NYFD appeared like a wave of reinforcements, ushering in an organization and efficiency that had not yet existed. Our task force was now navigating four staircases to shuttle patients downstairs and aid upstairs. We’d only been using two for hours.
Earlier that evening I’d watched the presumed fire chief puzzle over a building plan. He quickly pointed out a fourth staircase – Staircase D – that not a single staffer knew existed. Staircase D became a more efficient passageway for us to transport empty sleds to the patient floors without disturbing evacuations, though the stairwell was spooky, slick with floodwater and glass shards since the hurricane had broken through a stairwell window.
Some of my memories from the night of the storm are dim and broken, too. I can recall the moment a patient in critical condition passed by, but I can’t fix the event in chronological order. Those of us on the landing scurried out of the way as several of the strongest men present, mostly firefighters, struggled under the weight of a morbidly obese patient whose lids slid closed like half-moons. Not only were these men bearing the fate of one of the medical center’s sickest cardiac patients, but their contorted faces and sweat-streaked backs provided a glimpsed into the heart of the East Coast’s laborious recovery. I remember dark corridors and bursting doors, nursing staff crowded around candles as they wait on instructions for their unit’s place in the evacuation.
I remember a doctor whose back gave out, but he continued to hoist a patient for several floors afterward.
I remember feeling very thirsty, and sorry for noticing.
I remember a shadow crawling into a hospital bed to rest before waking up at work.
Our last stop was the maternity ward where a woman whose bloodstream coursed with epidural meds had just delivered. The young mom believed she could walk down with her baby, but a staffer talked her out of it, easing her into a low squat where she rolled onto her back and was strapped into a sled.
A nurse led the way with the woman’s newborn child.
“Congratulations,” I said smiling down at the young mom. “What a crazy time to be born.”
She smiled back at me, but mostly looked disturbed and drained by the day’s events.
This time I was tasked with holding the sled, helping work it down nine flights of stairs with five others while Dad followed carrying the baby’s belongings.
The trip down was smooth, but slow, so we told the crew and new parents about My Darling. How she’d said “What is this, the Empire State Building,” and everyone chuckled again.
All around us National Guard and EMS professionals showed up until it was time to head home and let them take over.
Ivan and I left the med center at 4:00 a.m. Though the flooding on First Avenue had begun to recede, I noticed the abandoned Ford still sunk in deep water.
Aside from a few flashing ambulances, Manhattan was pitch black and prickly quiet. It seemed as if the entire metropolis had just gotten socked in the eye. Trees lay scattered across the sidewalk, snapped or bent over. The wind whistled less vehemently, but bit at my neck and exposed fingertips warning of drastic temperature changes as November neared. Trash skittered along the street and sidewalks. Just hours before I’d watched a crane fly out of control into a storefront window. Now, things stood still.
Inside the apartment building, exhausted, we waited a moment for the elevator before we realized that the electricity was still out; we’d have to take the stairs again.
We climbed once more and crawled in bed, then lay bearing the sharp reality of smallness as we thought back on the night. I listened for passing traffic, construction work, and the crash of delivery crates unloaded onto concrete. All the sounds that mean morning in Manhattan.