When you describe the aftermath of a disaster like Hurricane Harvey, you have to be careful with your adjectives. Let’s face it, hundreds of thousands of people would be hard-pressed to say there was anything “wonderful” about this storm.
With that, and at the risk of offending those whose lives and homes and possessions have been shattered, I do want to share one of the wonderful stories to arise from the filthy waters that trampled our community.
To tell this story accurately, let me take you back a few years to a series of meetings I had with some of the leadership of Memorial Hermann Greater Heights.
If you’re a Houstonian and you think of the Memorial Hermann brand, you wouldn’t be mistaken if you immediately thought of a behemoth medical organization that serves thousands upon thousands of patients across this enormous metroplex. The hospital’s name is associated with professional sports teams of the city, their billboards dot every major interstate and their high-quality advertising campaigns give the impressions that they are bigger than any one community they serve.
And that’s what made my meetings with the Memorial Hermann Greater Heights team so surprising a few years ago. We sat around tables – sometimes in a conference room, other times over lunch – and talked about the way our local hospital was perceived in the community. I was given incredible insight into the struggles they had running what, at the time, was called Memorial Hermann Northwest.
In the past five years, you’ve seen big changes at this hospital. You’ve seen a $10 million renovation of the emergency room. The name – after months of meeting with focus groups – has been changed to better reflect the community it serves. Literally, this hospital has been turned inside-out because what was once the front door is now the back.
On top of structural changes, Memorial Hermann Greater Heights has made a huge investment in this community. I don’t mind telling you that they are loyal supporters of The Leader, hopefully because they believe in us as one of the leading providers of community information. But the advertising dollars they spend with us are peanuts compared to what they’ve invested in our neighborhoods. They support our Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood associations and virtually every event that takes place on our streets – think White Linen Night.
The strategy of the hospital’s CEO, Susan Jadlowski, has been to do everything possible to earn the trust of the families who call this area home. And I don’t think it’s unfair for me to say they’ve struggled to earn the loyalty of the community they’ve been so loyal to over the years, including the years the hospital lost plenty of money serving patients who couldn’t afford care.
Maybe that’s why, during a phone call with Jadlowski earlier this week, she had to pause for a few minutes and fight away tears when she told me the story of what happened at Memorial Hermann Greater Heights as Hurricane Harvey crashed down on this city.
Ideally, this story would have been told a week ago, but for the staff at the hospital, there was no time for media interviews. Not when there were patients entering the emergency room who had been stranded in cold, grimy water for 24 hours. Not when a person entered the ER, victim of an electrocution. Not when dozens of people came wandering up to the hospital doors begging for dialysis because their usual shopping-strip center had been flooded.
“The ER looked like a MASH Unit,” said Jadlowski, who ascended from a registered nurse to the CEO of her own hospital. “This was unlike anything I’ve ever been involved with. It was extremely stressful, the number of patients who came here. It was more than we have ever seen.”
With an emergency room full of soggy patients, the staff of Memorial Hermann Greater Heights responded in full force. Jadlowski said some employees stayed in hotels close to work so they could make it in. Doctors in different parts of the city sat on the phone with long-time employees who helped them map a safe route to the hospital. Two registered nurses were flown to this hospital from Amarillo, just to provide needed support. Another nurse flew in from Washington, D.C.
“This was an overwhelming experience,” Jadlowski said. “Doctors came and stayed for days. We had every single specialty here. We don’t even really do dialysis here, and we were able to see every, single patient.”
The hospital also used its newly renovated Labor and Delivery unit.
“We had an overwhelming number of babies born. There were seven, or eight or nine labors [happening] at the same time during the storm,” Jadlowski said.
If you’ve ever seen a hospital depicted during a disaster on TV, it’s probably safe to multiply that by 10. That was the scene at Memorial Hermann Greater Heights, and you can only imagine how difficult the work was on the employees, Jadlowski included, who maybe slept three or four hours a night.
And that’s where this story turns wonderful.
As more and more patients filled the rooms and halls of the hospital, employees, doctors and nurses found themselves sleeping on tile floors, just to muster enough energy to continue saving lives. And there was one employee who took to social media to simply state how nice it would be to have an air mattress.
“You know, the average age of a nurse is mid- to late-50s,” Jadlowski said. In other words, it’s hard for them to sleep on hard, tile floors.
“This community…” Jadlowski said, the tears swelling through her words. She has to stop herself.
“This community. Word got out that we could use an air mattress.” It’s still hard for her to finish the sentence.
Within 24 hours, people drove – dangerously at times – through the pouring rain and flooded streets to deliver air mattresses. In all, around 80 air mattresses were delivered to back door of the hospital from total strangers.
“I’m telling you, the nurses sat there and cried,” Jadlowski said. “They were so thankful.”
Beyond the first responders, no one played a greater role in saving lives in Houston than the men and women who worked four and five days straight at places like Memorial Hermann Greater Heights.
And based on this community’s reciprocal support, I’d say the hospital has earned some much-deserved loyalty.