The day after Hurricane Ivan hit, Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola was running on generator power, without running water and suffering structural damage. The number of patients in the hospital continued to grow at a rapid pace. With special needs shelters full and many area people left homeless and injured, the number of patients coming to the hospital was steadily increasing. Many Scared Heart staff members were stranded at the hospital, many had not been home for days, and had no idea of whether there was even a home left to return to. Employees that would normally come in to relieve staff were stranded at home or in shelters. The only chance was help from outside. Late afternoon on Thursday, September 16th, St. Vincent’s Health System’s Chief Executive Officer, John Maher called Sacred Heart Hospital to see if St. Vincent’s could help.
An immediate call went out for volunteers, within two hours more than 100 responded. The biggest hurdle was not in getting volunteers; St. Vincent’s staff is well known for commitment to the community, but in getting them to Pensacola. With airports closed and roads impassable, it was a challenge. John Maher rose to this challenge by working to find air and ground transportation, even personally guaranteeing the cost of a charter plane. Collaboration with Jacksonville’s major corporations resulted in the donation of two additional planes; St. Joe Company and Physician Sales and Services (PSS) World Medical.
By the following morning, 81 staff members left Jacksonville for hurricane-damaged Pensacola. These courageous volunteers came from all areas of the medical center, both clinical and non-clinical, each willing to do whatever was necessary to assist in providing care for the storm ravaged victims. Two days before government assistance arrived, St. Vincent’s volunteers were the first to fly into Pensacola’s airport after the storm, a frightening experience; and the first to respond to a call for help; and the first to arrive on the scene at Sacred Heart Hospital. Many of these volunteers had no experience in providing post-storm care and had no idea what to expect. Scared Heart’s fatigued and overworked staff welcomed St. Vincent’s with open arms. St. Vincent’s nurses, pharmacists, pharmacist technicians, respiratory therapists, plant facility personnel, clinical engineers did whatever was necessary to get things up and running, working 16 hour shifts, treating major and minor injuries such as dehydration, chain saw injuries, and dialysis.
All had left the comfort and security of their homes in Jacksonville without a second thought to venture out into an unknown situation, wrought with destruction and loss…why? It was the right thing to do! St. Vincent’s arrived with enthusiasm and selfless dedication working side by side with our people under the most trying conditions, no water or air conditioning, inadequate sleeping facilities, no way to clean up or shower.” St. Vincent’s initiative to be the first on the scene and to work without hesitation, gave all of us the hope we needed to carry on. Each of these volunteers did not hesitate to give of themselves to help the community of Pensacola recover from the terrible ordeal of Hurricane Ivan. Years from now, after wounds have healed, St. Vincent’s and its staff will be remembered for their selfless dedication and for their mission of providing for all persons with special attention to those who are vulnerable.