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  Vol. 22, No. 13  Previous Table of Contents Home  Next July 15, 2000 

Team Effort Required in Response to Explosion

(Left to right): Brett Dodwell, Janice Hughes, David Hendricks, Barbara Swindle, Rick Smith, Linda Pry, Barbara Roop, Marsha Weiss and Virginia Farmer.

One witness described a great ball of fire that rose over the horizon. Another spoke of a giant black mushroom cloud. Within minutes after the blast occurred inside the Phillips Petroleum plant's Pasadena facilities at 1:22 p.m. on March 27, the scene was complete pandemonium: Workers fleeing in pickup trucks and on bicycles, family members gathering outside the gates awaiting news. . .

Fifteen miles away, Dr. David Cobham's pager was going off, telling him of an explosion in the area. A member of Memorial Hermann Hospital's department of occupational medicine, Dr. Cobham provides medical services for six plants along the ship channel, including Phillips. Dr. Cobham left at once, driving in the direction of the billowing smoke and arriving with the emergency crews.

"It was a nightmare," he recalls. "Like something you'd see on television. Severely burned people lying on stretchers. People all over the hallways.

"For a split second you are stunned. Then all the years of medical school and residency training, everything you've read, all the patients you've seen - it all comes together and everything becomes reflex."

Later, Norm Berkeley, Phillips' human resources manager, would comment on what a help Dr. Cobham was, lending a hand to stabilize the injured and ready them for transport. "I don't know what we would have done without him," he says.

Meanwhile, miles away the staff of Memorial Hermann Hospital began bracing for the arrival of victims.

Tom Flanagan, administrative director of emergency services, Memorial Hermann Life Flight and its communications center, was feeling under the weather and planned to leave work early when he learned of the explosion. "I thought it was a bad joke," remembers Flanagan. "But sure enough, we could see the smoke and the fire from the 12th floor windows in our Life Flight communications office which overlooks the helipad."

Immediately, he issued a call for all three helicopters and organized a shuttle system, sending the helicopters and crews back and forth to the Phillips plant.

With burn patients, every second counts. Severe burns can cause patients to lose fluids and go into shock. When the burns are on the face, medical workers have to be on guard against swelling that can cause the airway to close.

To save time, Flanagan met the crews on the helipad as they came in. He helped unload patients, gave the crew a new stretcher and more supplies and sent them back to the accident site. "We probably saved a good seven to 10 minutes turnaround time that way," says Flanagan.

As he stood on the rooftop, he could hear the ambulances coming off Highway 288 onto MacGregor. The hospital would receive 12 patients within 25 minutes by ground and air, nine of them with moderate to severe burns. Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital received eight more.

For Linda Reese, the charge nurse on duty in the Galtney Trauma & Emergency Center, it started out as a typical day - busy. Then the ambulances started arriving. "The volume itself was not that unusual," Reese says. "Getting that many burn patients at once is very unusual."

Reese and her team put in a call to off-duty nurses and the other units. Every unit responded. The Shock Trauma Intensive Care unit took one of the patients, and the burn unit sent nurses to transport other patients to the floor, freeing Reese and the others to treat the people that were still coming in. "The important thing was to keep everything moving."

In the volunteer center, director Marsha Weiss and her staff tracked the volunteers already on duty. "The first one we found was Linda Pry, in the critical care waiting room," recalls Weiss. "She's been volunteering here for a couple of years and she's trained to deal with crisis situations." A call to volunteers brought in 15 others.

Volunteers were stationed at strategic points to meet the families and company representatives, and direct them to rooms set aside for consultation. Still others were dispatched as liaisons along with the four Memorial Hermann chaplains, to relay information between the medical staff and the families.

"Families are confused and scared," says Chaplain Rick Smith on duty that day. "Information is the best gift they can get. Until they can actually see their family member and find out what's going on, they can't begin to settle down and cope."

Throughout, the work of healing continued. At one point, Flanagan looked into the emergency center. "I was awestruck," he says. "You would have thought this was staged."

By 5:30 p.m., a little over two hours after the first call came in to the hospital, all the patients had been tended to and the emergency center resumed normal operations.

"After something like this happens, you always go back and ask yourself if there's anything you could have done to make things better," Flanagan says. "I can honestly tell you, I wouldn't have changed anything. Everyone pulled together - physicians, nurses, technical staff, radiology staff, volunteers and social services.

"I walked out of here that night and thought how could you not be proud of this. We didn't have to beg people. A lot of them saw it on the news or heard about it and came down here on their own to help out. It all came down to what was in the best interest of the patients."


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