Hospital, burn victims perform heroics after attacks
CNN Medical Unit
(CNN) -- Like all hospitals in New York City on September 11th, the Cornell Medical Center quickly got ready for the worst -- especially in its burn unit.
Dr. Herbert Pardes, the president and CEO of New York Presbyterian Hospital, said that when he and his staff saw the catastrophe unfolding on TV, they immediately went into emergency mode, suspending routine operations to be ready for "massive numbers of patients."
The Weill Cornell Burn Unit is one of the largest burn centers in the United States, with 48 beds, which probably made the difference between life and death for many of the most critically injured victims of the terror attacks.
Dr. Roger Yurt, the director of the burn unit, said they were ready two hours after the disaster began, after moving patients to other floors and even to other buildings. The hospital's emergency medical technicians were on the scene, just seven miles away.
The burn unit got help from colleagues in other specialities at the hospital. Housekeeping staff turned rooms around in about five minutes, and there were five nurses waiting for each patient, according to the nurse manager, Bob Dembicki.
Most patients came directly to the burn center without going to the emergency room. The patients were resuscitated and teams of doctors and nurses worked to figure out what percentage of each patient's body was burned and how deep the burns were.
Dembicki recalls they had seven patients arrive almost simultaneously "so there were seven rooms with teams of people and we were ready for another six and that all happened in a pretty short amount of time."
He said that for the first few days, supplies were stacked in the hallway because "the stuff was flying out of the boxes quicker than they could bring it up."
Doctors and nurses didn't have time to use the automated dispensing system in the hospital's pharmacy, so pharmacists were stationed on the burn unit distributing medications.
Much of the staff was working almost 'round the clock, including burn nurses sent in by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) to allow other staff to get a break.
Yurt said that the burns were some of the worst he and his staff had ever seen. "We had a patient with a 100 percent burn, all third-degree. What was so shocking was seeing so many burns like that at the same time."
In general, Yurt says it takes about one second of exposure to 155 degrees Fahrenheit to get a third-degree burn. The fires at the World Trade Center, feeding off jet fuel, were as hot as 1,000 degrees. Yurt says that a fire that hot would incinerate anything it comes near.
Cure can be as bad as the cause
The operating room was running from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and many of the patients had to undergo surgery multiple times for burns and skin graphs.
In addition to surgery, burn patients must undergo other difficult and painful procedures.
Dressings must be changed twice a day. One of those changes is done in the "tank room," where the patient lies on a stainless steel table.
Hoses hang from the ceiling and shower the patient with water to peel away layers of dead skin, thus exposing the wounds.
Manu Dhingra, who suffered burns over 39 percent if his body, says the tank room was worse than reliving the burning. At first, he said, he didn't believe that burn care could be more painful than the burns -- but he rapidly changed his mind.
The tank room, and other rooms, have heating lamps because burn patients have a hard time staying warm. Operating rooms must be kept at 85 degrees, which takes its toll on the staff.
Then there's the patient's long road to recovery.
"A rule of thumb is about one day per percentage of burn -- so for someone with an 80 to 90 percent burn we are talking about a minimum of three months," Yurt said.
A long time in the hospital was a small price to pay, said Dhingra, who thinks he's lucky to have a second chance at life.
"When I realized I was going to be out of the hospital soon, it was just such a relief because I never thought I would be alive, much less walk and enjoy the things I used to do," Dhingra said.
In addition to healing the skin, the body and mind must be healed. Dhingra is seeing a psychiatrist as well as physical therapists and his regular doctor. He says these are the three components that will help him heal.
Dhingra is not alone in feeling grateful to be alive. Elaine Duch, who was discharged on January 29th, had a will to live. "I asked God to save me and he did," she says.
Donovan Cowan, the final patient to be discharged, says he knew he needed to live for his parents. Both Duch and Cowan are now at Burke Rehabilitation Center and are being treated at the burn center as outpatients.
The staff at Cornell is also recovering. Three of their emergency medical technicians went missing after responding to the disaster.
"It affects everyone in the country and it affects us in the same way on top of that. It's the agony and the pain we are seeing in so many of these patients," Yurt said.
Dembicki says it's a challenge for the people who work in the burn unit. The patients are there for so long they become part of the hospital family. "We cry with the families and you cry with the patients," Dembicki said.
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