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More than 50 Burn Patients Treated
at UCSD Regional Burn Center as Fires Rage Through County

UCSD Medical Center Staff Come
to Patientsí Aid Despite Being Evacuated from Their Own Homes

Leslie Franz | October 29, 2007

Chief Executive Officer Rich Liekweg
Chief Executive Officer Rich Liekweg was a constant presence throughout the week.
Watch a video of Liekweg discussing how the UCSD Regional Burn Center responded to the San Diego area fires.

The UCSD Medical Center and UCSD Regional Burn Center have been through this before.  Four years ago when the Cedar Fires erupted, the hospital mobilized to care for the injured, and by the time the devastation had subsided, 23 patients were still being treated as inpatients, some with critical burns. All who were treated at UCSD survived.

When San Diego’s latest firestorm began on Sunday, October 21, 2007, Tom Banaszak, R.N. was on duty as nursing supervisor at UCSD Hillcrest. He was playing the same role at the onset of the Cedar Fires, and when he and others heard the news, they recognized a disaster in the making. Helicopters were already bringing in patients, and the television news programs were broadcasting the story live.

 “My first thought was that at least we have a great team on duty to deal with whatever might develop,” Banaszak recalls.

As pages and phone calls began going out, a team of physicians, nurses and administrators quickly assembled. Within a few hours, several burned patients had been brought to UCSD Medical Center-Hillcrest, and a Code Orange had been called, signifying that the hospital was in an internal emergency response mode. Incident Command Centers were set up at both hospitals and the Moores Cancer Center, and they would remain open around the clock for more than 72 hours.

Dr. Bruce Potenza, Director OF UCSD Regional Burn Center (center) , led a team of specialists including Brian Piatowski, R.N. (right)
Dr. Bruce Potenza, Director OF UCSD Regional Burn Center (center) , led a team of specialists including Brian Piatowski, R.N. (right) who have cared for over 50 patients burned in the fires.

“My most salient observation was a sense of deja vu, remembering that it was just four short years ago that we had experienced the same combination of fear and dread at the thought of advancing fire,” said Dr. Josh Lee, UCSD Medical Center Hospitalist. “I was comforted by our all being together Sunday night, but as Monday morning wore on, I became increasingly fearful that we would become overwhelmed by the triple whammy of burn patients, depleted staff due to the massive evacuations, and the potential rush of patients from hospitals who themselves might have to evacuate.”

Over the course of the week, under the direction of Dr. Bruce Potenza, who like others on his team had to help evacuate his own family from their home, more than 50 patients would be treated by the Burn Center, with several hospitalized.  Seven days after the fires started, 18 patients were still hospitalized, including five firefighters.  Nine were in critical condition.

Ian King, R.N. and Donovan Academia, Emergency Room Technician, care for a critically burned patient in the UCSD Regional Burn Center.
Ian King, R.N. and Donovan Academia, Emergency Room Technician, care for a critically burned patient in the UCSD Regional Burn Center.

“We asked our staff to report to their normal shifts throughout this crisis, knowing that many were dealing with evacuations themselves,” said Chief Executive Officer Richard Liekweg. “We immediately set up daycare services since we knew childcare would be an issue, with the schools closing, and we began reaching out to anyone who could respond.  Our team worked to ensure that we would have full coverage for all of our hospitals and clinics, anticipating that we would be a major receiving center for patients suffering from injuries as the fires continued raging.”

For hospitals, the critical responders include a wide array of staff beyond the key emergency and trauma personnel who care for the injured. “Our nutrition, environmental services and facilities staff play a vital role in keeping people fed, and keeping our facilities clean, safe, fully operational and stocked with supplies, and ready for the next patient,” said Liekweg.

Social Work and the Chaplain Service attended to the social, emotional and spiritual needs of patients, families and employees. In addition to staffing the ongoing internal communication effort and making sure communication with the County Emergency Operations Center was going smoothly, Telecommunications Office personnel began fielding a flood of phone calls from worried family members and others. Physicians and specialists cared for those with emergency needs and respiratory problems, and the hospitals and clinics continued to provide care for UCSD patients throughout the week.  Only UCSD’s Scripps Ranch Family Practice site closed during the height of the fires, and elective surgeries and procedures were cancelled early in the week in anticipation of a continuing influx of injured patients. By Thursday, the system was almost back to full operation.

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San Diego County Fires: UCSD Information and Resources

“As I walked through our hospitals and clinic areas during the week, I was struck by the number of people hard at work who had themselves been evacuated, or had family or friends who were being directly impacted by the fires,” said Liekweg. “Many who were not in danger had opened their own homes to others. And yet they were here, doing their jobs, responding to the community crisis. I am always proud of the expertise and dedication of our physicians and staff, but at a time like this their selfless commitment to those we serve is simply remarkable, and truly inspiring.”

Emergency day care facilities were set up at Thornton Hospital and at the Unitarian Church in Hillcrest.
Emergency day care facilities were set up at Thornton Hospital and at the Unitarian Church in Hillcrest. The volunteer staff which ncluded UCSD School of Medicine students provided care for dozens of children of the physicians and staff who came to work throughout the week.

“Because we have such experienced staff and we’ve been through this before, we knew what to expect, and what to do,” said Potenza, director of the Regional Burn Center.  “We’d been there. And we train for this. But, we are only as successful as those who support us, and throughout the system, people worked hard under difficult conditions. In our unit, the entire staff came in to help at some point.  They know their expertise makes a difference in the patient outcomes, so they do what needs to be done.”

UCSD health providers as well as medical and pharmacy school students also volunteered throughout the community. A team of physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and students immediately deployed to Qualcomm Stadium with medical supplies. Their first job was to set up and manage a diabetes and blood pressure station. As the week wore on, they continued to help manage patients and supplies, even requesting a fax machine to support the pharmacy. Delivery was immediately arranged by the Medical Center.

Media coverage of the fires, and of UCSD Medical Center’s role, was seen worldwide.    UCSD Respiratory Therapist Phil Panzarella e-mailed from Bangkok, Thailand, where he was on a medical mission:

UCSD Emergency Physician Dr. Colleen Buono (wearing glasses) led a team of volunteer physicians, staff and students to provide medical care for evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium.
UCSD Emergency Physician Dr. Colleen Buono (wearing glasses) led a team of volunteer physicians, staff and students to provide medical care for evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium.

“We learned of the fires the day we left (Cambodia) for Thailand and crossed our fingers that all were safe from harm, especially our fellow UCSD employees. I want to express to you how well UCSD has been represented on this part of the globe.  I want to say how lucky I feel to be part of an organization that is so well respected…and getting worldwide recognition. Hang in there and stay safe.”

And, in one of many notes and gestures of concern and support that poured in from around the nation and the world, a group of nurses at the University of Alabama Medical Center in Mobile had 30 pizzas sent to the nursing staff of the Burn Center, Surgical Intensive Care Unit and Emergency Room.

As the crisis began to subside and operations returned to normal, many began to reflect upon the past week, and already through the debriefing process, the lessons learned were being incorporated into the Medical Center’s disaster planning efforts, which are ongoing.

Firefighters assisting with the San Diego fires from around the state took time during their breaks to visit to the UCSD Regional Burn Center, where injured firefighters injured in the blaze were receiving care.
Firefighters assisting with the San Diego fires from around the state took time during their breaks to visit to the UCSD Regional Burn Center, where injured firefighters injured in the blaze were receiving care.

“It’s amazing how people pull together at a time like this,” said Banaszak a week later.  “On the other hand, I guess it isn’t really amazing; people here always do what they need to do.  Last Sunday people just started arriving to help, and that kept up all week. They always come through.”

And after a week of canceling all plans and appointments in order to focus fully on the crisis, CEO Rich Liekweg took off Sunday for Washington D.C. to attend the first meeting of the Federal Communications Commission’s Joint Advisory Committee on Communications Capabilities of Emergency Medical and Public Health Care Facilities.  Liekweg was appointed to the 25-member committee just this month, and without question will have a lot to share from the front lines of an emergency response that by all accounts was an impressive display of preparedness, coordination and commitment.

Individuals who would like to donate to the UCSD Burn Unit to help support current and ongoing efforts are encouraged to visit UC San Diego’s secure, online giving website at www.givetoucsd.ucsd.edu http://www.givetoucsd.ucsd.edu .  Donors can select from a choice of four funds to assist the UCSD Burn Unit by simply using “burn” in the keyword search area on the site’s gift designation page. For questions, call 619-471-0485.

 


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