Since 1967, the community health care workers of Columbia-Montour Home Health & Hospice, part of the Bloomsburg Health System, have provided in-home nursing and care-giving services for all of Columbia and Montour counties, as well as most of Northumberland, parts of lower Luzurne, and areas of Union, Lycoming, Sullivan, and Schuylkill counties. With ten home health and hospice nurses, three social workers, ten aides, occupational, physical, and speech therapists, as well as spiritual and bereavement councilors, the staff of Columbia Montour Home Health is well-accustomed to serving the needs of Bloomsburg, Berwick, Danville, and the surrounding communities.
But when disasters such as the recent flood occur, it is then that home care, so important in normal times, is needed the most.
Knowledge of the flood’s severity “started with just a flickering of the phone system,” said Cathy Reed, Director of Home Health. “The phones are our lifeline. There were physicians calling in, our own nurses calling in.” Then, suddenly, the phones went down. “That’s an unusual occurrence but not quite a disaster. We also have an answering service for after hours calls, which then became a mode of communication for our patients.”
“Then we started hearing a lot of odd sirens and wondering what was going on,” Mrs. Reed stated. While the offices of Columbia Montour Home Health are located in the Bloomsburg Hospital complex, well above the flood plain, the nurses and aides are often on the road, traveling to homes and through areas that were becoming inundated with the rising waters.
Hearing that it was more than just the traditional low-lying areas that were being flooded, and the safety of their nurses and staff being paramount, the decision was made for the first time ever to close their offices. The problem then became: how would staff and patients communicate over such a wide, multi-county area.
The staff of Columbia Montour Home Health began to implement their formalized disaster plan which provides procedures for dealing with such emergencies, including prioritizing a list of patients with the most immediate needs and disseminating instructions to those patients who they may not be able to reach.
Management held twice daily conference calls from their cell phones at home to assess the ongoing situation, while individual nurses stayed in touch with their patients in most need of care. The entire network of visiting nurses was coordinated from private homes on Thursday, September 8th.
“If it hadn’t been for technology, we never would have been able to handle this,” said Loreen Comstock, Administrator of Clinical Services. “There was a lot of texting.” The regular WHLM 930 AM radio broadcast was also credited for providing nurses with timely information on the developing situation.
Nurses and office staff communicated with each other, relaying patient information as well as travel conditions. “I don’t think people realized how bad the situation was.” said Mrs. Comstock. Mrs. Reed agreed, “We told the caregivers to use their best judgement if they could get to a home safely, and to not compromise their own safety.”
In spite of the conditions, the nurses aides and therapists still continued to make their visits, and all of the caregivers were able to find ways to get to most of their patients. “We had to come up with creative routes to get to places,” said Mrs. Reed.
In the aftermath, Mrs. Reed reported that the visiting nurses did not receive a single complaint. “People were very understanding.”
When asked what she thought of the nurses’ reaction to what they went through on the days of the flood, Mrs. Reed reflected, “Some people thrive on the challenge. These are the people that go out in the snow, the storms all year.”