One of my co-workers at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital said to me the other day, “You sure don’t seem to let things bother you much.” As my wife and kids read this quotation they will probably drop and roll on the floor laughing, but I do try and stay calm, cool and collected when practicing my profession; although I wasn’t always that way. I believe that each of us is a product of life's experiences. For me, it was an event that sharpened me and made me realize the importance of staying cool and forging ahead even when under intense pressure. Since the incident in early 2006 there really hasn’t been much happen to me professionally that has caused me to rock back on my heels.
At the time I was working at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Buckhannon, West Virginia. My job title was Vice President of Diagnostic Services, an important sounding name for the person who basically had administrative responsibility for the Pharmacy, Imaging and Clinical Laboratory departments at the hospital. You may remember that on January 2, 2006 there was a terrible explosion in the Sago Coal Mine in central West Virginia that had trapped several coal miners’ miles below the surface within the mine. Well that particular coal mine happened to be a mere 10 miles from my hospital, and due to the incident the hospital had been placed on a heightened state of readiness. Over the next 48 hours we began to prepare and rehearse for what our role could eventually become: all possibilities were considered and the administrative team along with the management group held tabletop drills to make sure that we were ready. The hospital was involved directly in the rescue efforts and we had deployed assets to assist with the operation; physicians, nurses, food, medications and bedding for the family members holding vigil at the site.
In the early morning hours of January 4, 2006 we received the initial reports that rescuers had located the trapped miners 2.5 miles into the coal mine. What happened over the next twelve hours still to this day is a surreal experience to me, a twelve hour period of time, an emotional roller coaster ride, twelve hours that seemed like 30 minutes. As you know, the initial reports indicated that all twelve miners had been located and were fine. As it turned out, those reports were inaccurate; a terrible error of communication from within the mine to the command center on the surface had lead to the reports. While the world was watching Geraldo Rivera and other internationally known correspondents gleefully report the news of recovery, a courageous St. Joseph’s ER physician was deep in the mine providing life support to the only critical survivor of the explosion. I was with other members of the administrative team when we received notice that the initial reports of twelve survivors was incorrect and instead we would be receiving one patient, suffering from exposure and severe carbon monoxide poisoning and that we could not confirm any of this information until the Governor had a chance to address the family members gathered at the church. In that moment, the gravity of what I had just been told, and the knowledge of how things would unfold over the next 30-60 minutes changed something inside of me. We knew that within minutes the news would break that one, not twelve, had been rescued and was in route to our hospital.
As soon as I had touched base with all of my direct reports, I found a quiet spot, a bathroom down the hall from the ER, near the entrance to the OR where we had established a multi-bay triage area that would not be needed on that night, and I prayed. I prayed for the victims, I prayed for their families, I prayed for our staff and I prayed for myself. Then, I opened the door and proceeded to meet the next 6 hours head-on.
As I drove home that evening, tired and suffering from the effects of an adrenalin rush of epic proportions long since declined, I realized, nothing that I would ever encounter professionally going forward could challenge me in the ways that I had been tested over those three days. I was proud of my hospital, my co-workers and my community. As the sun set that evening in my rear view mirror I realized, after twenty-plus years of professional experience, this event had prepared me for anything that lies ahead, and because of that, at least in my professional life, I don't get too excited about anything that happens. I had learned that if you prepare and meet a crisis head-on with a can do attitude and keep your cool, you will accomplish what needs to be accomplished. In a sense, I guess you could say that the disaster and my role within had sharpened me, as steel sharpens steel.