BAYCHESTER — The Workmen’s Circle MultiCare Center, a Bronx medical facility for the elderly, received a message the Friday before Sandy struck — prepare for storm evacuees.
Specifically, city officials told the facility to expect 40 elderly patients from Sea Crest Health Care Center, a Brooklyn nursing home that overlooks the Coney Island boardwalk, a landmark that lay squarely in the path of the storm.
Without a second thought, the Bronx staff rushed to get ready for the new arrivals.
For all the lives it wrenched apart, last week’s storm thrust many others unexpectedly together — in this case, delivering dozens of vulnerable evacuees to the care of professionals some 30 miles to the north.
“They weren’t widgets or shoes or products that you’re moving,” said Larry Abrams, director of administration at Workmen’s Circle. “These were people. And they needed to be taken care of.”
During the weekend before the storm, workers found 40 cots and arranged them in the building’s large, cleared-out exercise room. They made each bed and placed a plastic bin of toiletries atop the covers.
About 30 staff slept at the center on Sunday, expecting the storm to disrupt transportation. Many stayed there for most of the following week.
That Sunday, the center was told that the Coney Island patients had been told to “shelter in place” at their own facility, rather than risk moving during Monday’s storm.
“Tuesday, the sun comes out and we think that we’re through the worst of it,” Abrams said.
But then they received another call — the evacuees would be coming, after all, on the following morning.
On Wednesday, yet another call — instead of 40 patients, expect 70.
“So we move all the cots again, get more mattresses, line them all up and start looking at other rooms, just in case,” recalled Cynthia Goodstein, the center's vice president of clinical services.
By 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, the evacuees began to arrive.
A trickle of ambulances and yellow school buses soon turned into a tide. Abrams estimates that 30 ambulances, some sent from as far away as Missouri and Illinois, helped ferry the patients.
Some tried transporting the evacuees to other nursing homes along the route from Coney Island, but were turned away, according to Abrams.
By the time the last bus departed, Workmen’s Circle found itself with 99 evacuees — more than double the amount it originally anticipated.
For some of the evacuees, the journey to Baychester had lasted more than five hours.
“They looked really beaten down, tired,” said Goodstein. “They looked defeated.”
After the patients arrived, the next hurdle was intake.
Staff set up makeshift centers at the exercise room entrance, where they measured the arrivals’ vital signs, photographed them and compiled a logbook. They also issued wristbands with critical, color-coded symbols — purple for “Do Not Resuscitate,” pink for diabetic and yellow for risk of falling.
Goodstein gave a crash course on the facility’s emergency procedures to the handful of Brooklyn staff who traveled with the evacuees.
Despite the meticulous preparations, some unforeseen hazards emerged.
Five patients’ records showed they had not been dialyzed for days, and a sixth person displayed symptoms that revealed he needed the procedure, too. After nearby dialysis centers said they were full, the patients had to be sent to an emergency room.
One woman had fallen during the evacuation and, it was soon determined, needed medical attention for a bone fracture. Other evacuees had left dentures, eyeglasses, even a prosthetic leg behind in Coney Island.
Meanwhile, a musician played the keyboard and sang to the patients resting in the exercise room. Social workers visited each one individually.
“A nursing home resident really has little control over what they do in their life,” said Abrams. “And it’s even worse when they’re displaced.”
Last Thursday, the center’s administration scrambled to secure long-term placements for the evacuees, since it appeared Sea Crest had been damaged in the storm.
Incredibly, they found empty beds for 95 of the patients by day’s end, in facilities from Staten Island to Queens, and from The Bronx to Long Island.
Among the four who stayed at Workmen’s Circle was Lemuel Cox, a 90-year-old WWII veteran and retired engineer.
Cox recalled gazing out at the boardwalk and the ocean from the nursing home in Coney Island. When the storm struck, he said, the building’s lights went out.
He was ordered to evacuate quickly, so he left behind his valuables, including his framed diplomas lining the wall. The only clothes he brought were those he had on, a thermal-underwear shirt and sweatpants.
“I’m feeling alright, but I'm worried about my things,” he said this week. Still, he added, “Things happen.”
After several exhausting days last week, the staff at Workmen’s Circle said they felt alright, too.
“We couldn’t imagine how we were going to do it,” said Cecille Yacat, the director of nursing. But now that they did, she added, “We feel very fulfilled.”