“Water?” says Dr. Lew Stringer at the start of a March 21 test run of the nation’s only civilian mobile disaster hospital. “We can suck contaminated water a quarter-mile, filter it and use it for all our needs. Of course, it’s easier to connect to fire mains.”
The tour of the desert-tan tent city that’s sprouted up in the parking lot of the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center continues through seemingly endless corridors that don’t look much different from what you’d find in any modern hospital. The beds are up, the monitors and other equipment is in place; there are even curtains between the beds.
“We would normally have floors, but this week, just for the setup and training, we didn’t want to do all that,” says Stringer, a state employee who’s the lead staffer for the project. “We can put the hospital anywhere you have about 250 by 250 feet of flat ground.”
The mobile unit has been set up to train new workers and give state Department of Health and Human Services inspectors a look. One of them, Jeff Harms, likes what he sees. “What [Stringer] has done here is beyond ordinary,” says Harms, poking around one of the operating rooms. “The attention to detail to meet all state hospital requirements is amazing.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security paid for parts of the facility, which North Carolina manages and maintains with a grant from the Mission Healthcare Foundation.
The whole complex is stored in 19 temperature-controlled trailer around kept in several undisclosed locations in WNC. Why here? It’s a quick jump to the Gulf or Atlantic coasts for hurricane relief. A fast dash to the Midwest for tornadoes or floods. It’s also convenient to coal country.
The hospital can be configured several ways: as a temporary complement to overwhelmed medical facilities; a full-blown, semipermanent installation replacing a destroyed or compromised hospital; or for use where there’s an ongoing need for medical care but no hospital.
Need just an operating-room suite? Send only the trailers containing the ORs and accompanying gear, pull in local staff, and they can start treating up to 40 patients a day, performing about 250 procedures before needing to resupply. And that includes just about anything short of open-heart surgery.
“One thing we don’t have,” notes Stringer, “is CT scan and MRI [equipment]. But there are many [other] mobile units that could join up with us; I don’t see a need to duplicate existing assets. Oh, and our next OR will have a C-arm [fluoroscope] and a surgical microscope.”
Need a decontamination-and-triage tent? How about a 12-bed, fully equipped trauma unit? An intensive care unit? Once the hospital is set up, the trailers it came in can house up to 320 staffers. And the refrigerated trailers that transport the drug crates become the morgue.
“I could not do this without the Baptists On Mission,” stresses Stringer. These volunteers do all the grunt work: unloading and setting up the hospital, maintaining the HVAC, generators and physical plant, and pitching in as stretcher-bearers and drivers. Team leader Sharon Chilton-Moser of Pilot Mountain, N.C., notes a few other duties: “Hospitals and all the people working in them make lots of laundry. We bring a trailer with washers and dryers. We’ve already been doing this at big wildfires: The firefighters don’t have time for it.”
There’s also the question of food. “With a full deployment, we would have a full kitchen setup and provide food to patients and staff,” Chilton-Moser explains. All that requires at least 30 volunteers. For the March 21 test, there are nearly 50.
“My other three partners are just as important as the Baptists,” says Stringer. Western Shelter, the Oregon company that made the tents, provides a technician to oversee setup. And SPEVCO of Pfafftown, N.C., which made the OR trailers and handled vehicle modification, also provides field support as needed.
A key local partner is Mission Health System. “We keep a lot of medical material stocked and ready to go,” Stringer explains. “All of it has an expiration date. When things get to about a year, Mission swaps out the shorter date stuff for us: They use it fast, and we can maintain our readiness. I can’t imagine how we could do any of this without these great partners.”
So if you happen to see 19 tractor-trailers with a huge police escort headed out of town, it’s a pretty good bet the mobile disaster hospital is on the move to help someone, somewhere.