Elderly Sandy Evacuees Find Temporary Home in Empty Brookdale Hospital Wing

By Sonja Sharp on November 28, 2012 10:58am 

BROWNSVILLE — Just a few weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy evacuee Gloria From's sixth floor room was a storage locker. Its faucets and electric fixtures had long ago been redistributed to other wings of Brookdale Hospital. There were no chairs, no beds, and no curtains. 

But in the days and weeks after the hurricane, Gloria and dozens like her were welcomed into Brookdale, where staff scrambled to make two floors of formerly empty space into a livable, albeit temporary, shelter.

"It was kind of the graveyard of the hospital," said Brookdale President Mark Toney said of portions of the 6th and 11th floors. "Within 48 hours we had all the plumbing, electrical and painting, privacy curtains and new beds so that we could bring in the patients."

Nearly a month after the hurricane, it remains unclear when the nearly 90 evacuees currently staying in Brookdale will be able to leave, and where they'll go when they do.

"Our objective working with the Department of Health is to get these patients repatriated to their home bases as soon as possible," Toney said. "If those nursing homes are not available then we’ll continue to be a facility that’s open to take care of them."

Though dramatic hospital evacuations in Manhattan captured the public's attention after Hurricane Sandy, smaller operations went largely unnoticed. Some patients at nursing homes in Staten Island and the Rockaways languished in the dark and cold for days before eventually finding a place to stay in Brookdale.

The totality of the devastation became apparent when patients began arriving at Brookdale by the busload.

"These patients are showing up with all of their belongings in a plastic bag," Toney said. "That’s part of what brought everyone together, when you see these people who are in need."

Since their arrival, they've been helped by emergency support staff including U.S. Public Health Service Capt. Brian Lewis, who was trained as a cardiologist.

Lewis is among the scores of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who have been deployed by the U.S. Public Health Service, a uniformed federal disaster response agency, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

He and his team have been charged with aiding frail and aging patients from the city's shoreline communities, which were devastated by the storm — and have been using every resource available to them.

"(During Katrina) we were operating out of a university gym where we had set up a tremendous field medical shelter," Lewis said. "When Rita came it was no longer safe to do that. The officers had to be moved from a tent to a school. Fortunately, the city of New York established this field medical shelter in a facility that is a hospital."

Patients say the new wing, while temporary, is still better than the one they left behind.

"It was quite bad," said From of her Brooklyn nursing home. "There was no power — it wasn't a livable condition."

Lewis and his team spent Thanksgiving in New York, singing classics from the 1920s and 30s to patients who still remember those songs from their youth. 

"There's so many nice songs from that era," Lewis said. "I guess it comes with being a heart rhythm doctor."

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