BEAUMONT, Texas — A patient gingerly balanced between a nurse in boxy green scrubs and a woman in fatigues. The woman’s arms draped across their shoulders as the trio slowly made its way across the hospital lawn to a waiting evacuation chopper. Its rotors thudded overhead.
Until sundown Thursday, a parking lot in Beaumont, Texas looked more like the staging area for a wartime evacuation than one regularly used by families visiting ailing relatives at one of the city’s main medical centers.
For more than 60 years, Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas has improved thousands of lives in the 118,000-resident community, but on Thursday, it needed help of its own. Patients who were able to walk, climbed aboard military helicopters. Others were wheeled out in their hospital beds, IVs swinging, alarms sounding. Doctors in white lab coats and EMTs maneuvered them into brightly colored air ambulances in the parking lot.
Both of Beaumont’s water pumps failed on Thursday, meaning there would be no clean drinking water for anyone.
Kyle Hayes, the city manager, still doesn’t know when the water will be back: It could be days or weeks. On Friday, police set up bottled water distribution stations and the Army sent replacement water pumps. Private companies have been trying to figure out a workaround, but city engineers can’t even get into the pumping stations until the high water recedes.
Hospital leaders had to decide: Do they ship in water and take a chance on the city’s infrastructure, as other area medical centers have done, or do they move 193 fragile and vulnerable patients far from their homes and from their support systems, their families and friends?
Before Hurricane Harvey hit, hospital leaders thought they were prepared for the worst. “We have staff here. We have food and supplies here. We were ready to rock and roll,” said Mary Poole, the hospital’s director of public relations. “Unfortunately, the city is not cooperating with the water.”
Hospital administrators decided Thursday that it was too risky to stay. Team leaders were told to prepare to move their patients. By sunset, all intensive care and dialysis patients, along with dozens of others, had been airlifted to Texas hospitals in Dallas, Galveston and Jasper. One patient was sent to Missouri.
It has been an intense and risky operation, but the patients have been safe and well cared for, according to the hospital.
There was one hiccup Thursday when Blackhawk helicopters landed at the facility. There had been a miscommunication, and crews were trying to get immediate help for 10 flood victims, not realizing that the hospital was closing. The hospital put out another urgent message warning all crews not to take flood victims there.
By the end of the day, more than a hundred patients had been evacuated. Eighty-three remained on a list to potentially be moved Friday. Eleven were infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. One doctor refused to leave those babies.
“He stayed up all night waiting for the helicopters, and they weren’t able to fly,” Poole said. “This is Southeast Texas, on the coast. We have a tendency to get a little bit of fog. The sun is coming up today. He’s ready to go.”
On Friday, hospital officials decided to transport the babies by ground first. They will then be moved onto a fixed-wing aircraft that can better accommodate their incubators, though it’s unclear at the moment where they will end up.
Because of the flooding, some of the babies’ parents haven’t even been able to see them for days, so hospital staff are doing everything they can to keep them informed about the evacuation.
“We are just calling them and letting them know every couple of hours how their babies are doing,” neonatologist Dr. Snehal Doshi said. The hospital is “giving them updates and reassuring them that they need to take care of themselves right now, and we’ll take care of their babies.”
Doctors and nurses will accompany each child during transport.
“I will be the last one to leave. I will take the last baby,” Doshi said. “Once we drop them off, get them secure and tucked in over there, then they’ll come back and start with the next round.
“They are our community’s kids, and we want to make sure they are taken care of.”