Wintertime. As I write this, I am seated, one leg over the other, in a cozy little café near my house wearing a soft knit sweater that was sent to me by my grandmother. My tea is warm, the sky is overcast, and the trees visible to me outside the small shop windows possess no foliage to speak of. For the average Houstonian, today is a typical Winter day.
It is also 65 °F outside.
Such is the weather here in Texas — a far cry from the frosty temperatures that bring forth twinkling precipitate from the sky in other parts of the country. Indeed, most Houstonians know better than to expect a white Christmas, or any snowfall at all. Nevertheless, Houston’s weather has the habit of catching its residents by surprise; a day will pass with the appropriate seasonal temperatures, only to be followed with cataclysmic weather of record-shattering proportion. This was most certainly the case when a few months prior, without warning, Hurricane Harvey left entire highways across the sprawling urban city completely submerged underwater. Then, weeks later, life returned to normal.
For this reason, I did not find it particularly out of the ordinary when all of a sudden I had to start bundling up with a scarf, gloves, and a winter cap so that I could comfortably brave the frigid temperatures while heading to work in the morning. “Classic Houston,” I thought to myself. As was the case every year, Houston only showcased true winter weather long after the holiday season had passed; temperatures would surely find themselves well above the freezing point in a day or so. This time however, as the days passed, the temperatures continued to drop. All of a sudden, reports began to emerge about “black ice” on the road — a foreign concept to many Texans. In some areas of Houston, an eighth of an inch of snow could be found on the ground — a laughable amount, yet enough to confuse the poor unenlightened Southern drivers into skidding off the road and stranding themselves.
Then one day, while I was at work, the intercom sounded overhead: “ATTENTION ALL [HOSPITAL] EMPLOYEES. THE HOSPITAL WILL NOW BE OPERATING AT CONDITION LEVEL II. TO REPEAT…”
Well, great. Within minutes, employees received an email from the hospital administration elaborating on the situation:
The weather report suggests we will have a mixture of snow, sleet and freezing rain which have the potential to produce dangerous travel conditions throughout Houston and surrounding areas.
As a precaution, we have activated our Incident Command Center and have made the decision to operate at Condition Level II. This means that the hospital is taking necessary operational precautions in the event of a Condition I Emergency. Leaders are assessing staffing levels within their departments and we are identifying overnight accommodations should there be a need to provide sleep rooms to staff who come in early or are unable to leave after their shift.
- The Hospital is fully prepared with food, water and patient care supplies in the event we move to Condition I Emergency
- Preparations are being made to provide sleeping space, if needed, for essential staff
- The incident command team is meeting throughout the day to monitor the weather situation and to continue planning
All staff should communicate directly with their managers to determine their schedules to maintain normal operations. Please do not leave [the Medical Center] until you have received approval from your manager. Please stay aware of changing weather conditions, be safe and stay warm. Thank you for all that you do to take great care of our patients!
In a nutshell, until further notice, no essential staff would be permitted to leave the premises. This was hospital protocol to protect both the staff from dangerous travel conditions and the hundreds of vulnerable patients who could potentially perish without medical care. In the event of a Condition I Emergency, the hospital must operate without even the most basic necessities such as water and electricity — given the fact that numerous highways were now completely shut down due to ice and/or stalled vehicles, the hospital proactively decided to batten down its hatches and inventory its resources (staff included) to determine the degree to which it could operate self-sufficiently with the absence of supply lines. Should the weather take a turn for the worse, patient care would not be disrupted.
I must admit, as a new nurse, I was a tad flattered at being considered “essential personnel.” Additionally, I couldn’t say that I was surprised that the hospital had changed its alert status. On that particular day, I had a feeling that it might become dangerous outside and had intentionally parked my car on the upper level of our covered parking garage rather than parking it in the open lot next to the train station as I typically did. My car was safe whether it would snow, hail, or flood outside.
I was then grateful for my foresight a second time when I recalled the newest addition to my locker: an overnight bag. After watching my coworkers spend days stranded at the hospital during Hurricane Harvey while I was still undergoing training, I decided to keep a clean set of sleepwear, undergarments, and replacement clothes in an overnight bag if the need ever arose for me to use them. In truth, I hadn’t expected to use them so soon — the hospital rarely kept employees overnight and a part of me had been envious of having missed my opportunity during Hurricane Harvey. The thought of having to spend the night in the hospital bubbled within me as giddy anticipation — it sounded like an adventure!
Still, at the time of having received the announcement, it was only about 1:00 PM. My shift would not be over until 7:15 PM and the hospital could easily reverse its decision. I was fine regardless of what the administration would decide (though I knew that my parents would rest easier knowing that I wouldn’t have to drive through the crippled roadways) but a number of the staff was understandably anxious about whether they could return home at the end of the day. Come shift change, the nurse’s station displayed an awkward amalgamation of both day-shift and night-shift nurses, offering a rare illusion of an overstaffed unit.
Since the patient I had been taking care of decided to tank close to shift change, I had my hands full as I gave Kristen, the night-shift nurse report. Since my manager wasn’t around yet to update the staff on the plan for the night however, I simply kept working alongside Kristen to lend an extra hand for the unstable patient. In a somewhat humorous (albeit unfortunate) revelation, it was clear that Kristen was used to working with little help during the understaffed nighttime as she was exceedingly grateful to have my assistance.
Once Kristen was settled with her initial tasks, I walked back to the nurse station to join the rest of the day-shift nurses in awkwardly sitting around while browsing on their phones. Eventually, our wonderful manager came out of her office to update us after having spoken with the nursing supervisor. After a sympathetic smile, she informs us, “I ordered pizza for you all!”
…Not the information that we were expecting, yet welcome nonetheless. She then went on to detail the protocol. First off, the hospital was indeed still operating under Condition Level II so we would be spending the night. Secondly, we were to clock out, log our time so that we could receive sleep pay (how wonderful to literally be paid for sleeping!), and then report to a nondescript room on the first floor to receive our sleeping assignments. Simple enough.
Since one of the nurses was able to attain special permission from my manager to return home due to the proximity of her residence from the medical center, our merry band of hospital adventurers consisted of myself, Jamie, Audrey, and Kerri. Of the lot of us, Audrey was the only one who had stayed overnight during Hurricane Harvey, and had in fact detailed her experience to me a few months prior. Though I couldn’t name anyone who would I would not term as such, it was still reassuring to know that the coworkers I’d be spending the night with were a friendly bunch, with the added benefit of Kerri being an RN IV (and thus a high-level nurse who could deal with anything).
After briefly waiting on one another so that we could head off together, the four of us piled into the spacious staff elevator to make our way downstairs. As a testament to our personalities, no one complained about our situation — on the contrary, Audrey was already making plans to convert our predicament into a slumber party of sorts and excitedly suggested grabbing some snacks from the cafeteria to share. Once we had reached the first floor, despite it being tucked away in a small hallway next to the chapel, it didn’t take long for us to find the room to which we had been told to report. Though I had expected it to be crowded with the various nurses across the hospital seeking bed assignments, I was surprised to find that this was not the case. One look inside the room explained why.
The organization was impeccable — the table at the center of the room held neat stacks of scrubs in various sizes to loan to employees spending the night. Hospital staff stood in a line holding stacks of linens to hand out. A sharp-looking lady with a clipboard stood at the doorway to hand out bunking assignments. The entire process took a matter of minutes. After selecting a hospital wing to spend the night in, each staff member in the room would hand you a stack, military style, of linens and supplies for the night. The hospital clearly had a protocol for streamlining the overnight accommodation of its employees.
As such, it didn’t take us long to leave the little room to make our way to the auditorium, the “campsite” that we had decided on. Once again, the hospital staff had been hard at work — the lecture tables and seating normally present in the auditorium were nowhere to be found. Instead, a number of green cots had been placed in a gridded fashion across the vast floorspace offered by the now emptied hall. As the four of us walked in, I had to chuckle as I pointed out to my coworkers how the “premium real-estate” had already been taken; a number of the cots clustered in corners or around power outlets already displayed signs of being occupied by either the less sociable or more device-dependent employees. It truly was a sight to see — numerous employees making their “beds” with the linens given to them, some having already changed into their sleep clothes. Outside of our unit-mates, we hardly even knew most of the other personnel around us, yet there was a shared camaraderie between us in being “stranded” at the hospital together.
I believe that it was Kerri who eventually picked out a cot, prompting the rest of us to follow. In order to lay claim to our spots, we all decided to lay out our bedding across the surprisingly not uncomfortable surfaces of our cots before preparing to head back to our unit to get at some of the pizza our manager had ordered. Funnily enough, once the four of us had “made our beds,” Audrey paused for a bit to observe how much sloppier hers looked in comparison to ours, remarked on her inelegance, and hastily (and embarrassedly) rushed back to redo her bedding. This prompted a laugh from us all which I found particularly funny because this behavior was entirely consistent with my perception of how Audrey operates at home.
On our way back to the unit, we decided to take a detour to the cafeteria to fulfill Audrey’s idea of collecting snacks for the night. After browsing around, she eventually decided on Reeses Peanut Butter Cups since their packaging made for easy sharing. “One for you, one for me!” she laughed.
Thus my dinner consisted of an entirely healthy combination of pizza, candy, and sparkling water. If someone were to hear this without knowing anything else about my situation, they would swear that I was still sitting in my apartment back in college with my utilitarian dietary habits. Perhaps this was why the whole ordeal felt so… normal in a way. The uncanny sort of normal in which absolutely nothing is in fact normal, yet there is a familiarity with the situation nonetheless. As night-shift did their thing outside, the four of us sat in the break room munching on our pizza and enjoying a conversation that typically would not endure the fleeting thirty minutes of reprieve granted to employees during their normal lunch breaks. Most of us had undone parts of our uniform already to get more comfortable and a couple of the girls had let down their hair. It was a strange mashup of professional and casual that somehow just seemed to epitomize the spur-of-the-moment situations that one often found themselves in during college; in this moment we were people, not unit-mates or class-mates.
After dinner, Kerri rounded up a few of the extra pillows on the unit to take down with us to the auditorium. Strangely enough, pillows are often a premium at the hospital since as many as five can be used on a single patient to prevent bedsores. Kerri actually admitted that she did not know the origin of the pillows that she found in the back room and had to mutter in her deadpan way that “someone probably died on them.” The visceral recoil from Audrey and Jamie could have been likened to a couple of cats with their fur standing on end. To be extra sure, I assisted Kerri in thoroughly wiping each pillow down with hospital-grade disinfectant (it is actually for this reason why the pillows have plastic “skins” rather than a fabric ones).
Once we were ready to go, we all took a moment to change into our sleepwear and snag a toothbrush kit from the supply room. Audrey, Jamie, and Kerri had opted to change into their loaner scrubs (also known as the “scrubs of shame”) to sleep, while I changed into the sleep clothes that I had stashed away in my locker. As hospital personnel know well, it’s always strange seeing one’s coworkers wearing anything besides their scrub uniforms, so my coworkers certainly got a kick out of seeing me wear “normal” clothes. To my surprise, Audrey immediately recognized my Star Trek t-shirt (I was sporting Spock’s uniform) and amusedly praised my foresight in having home clothes to change into.
Finally ready to sleep, we made our way back downstairs. Sure enough, as we passed by the immense windows present across our unit, we could see delicate little flecks of white gently floating down towards the street below — it was snowing. After briefly stopping at the bathrooms to brush our teeth (and then waiting on one another to regroup), we were in high spirits as we entered the auditorium.
…only to be cut off with a loud “shhh!” from Jamie. As she had been the one to open the door, Jamie was the first to realize that someone had already declared “lights out” and that the entire auditorium was pitch black. Rather, the room was mostly pitch black save for intermittent blinks of cell phone screens that allowed our eyes to quickly adjust and locate our cots. As we climbed under our respective sheets, we whispered hushed goodnights to one another before promising to wake up at 6:00 AM; since we were already at the hospital, we could sleep in for an extra hour or so.
The night was surprisingly easy to pass and not at all uncomfortable. Before I knew it, as the morning approached, I began to hear more and more alarms (many of which were characterized as generic iPhone alarm sounds) from the multitude of employees sharing the auditorium.
And then the day began. We all looked a little rough around the edges since we didn’t have access to a shower, but we made the best of it and stumbled up to our unit to dispose of our linens from the night. Night-shift was somewhat amused to see our half-awake faces, but bid us a good morning that was made even better by their decision to purchase “guilt donuts” for us, having been sympathetic to our plight. The four of us took turns freshening up and changing into our uniforms in the employee bathroom. As I was the last to enter the bathroom, Audrey hung back to ask me from outside the door if I wanted anything from the cafeteria.
I took my time eating my breakfast, having decided on scrambled eggs, seasoned potatoes, and hash browns. I couldn’t say that I was tired, but something about the whole situation made me want to slow down a bit. My adventure the night before wasn’t a bad experience at all — in addition, I had been scheduled to work both yesterday and today anyways so it’s not like my shift schedule was thrown off in the least. To top it off, I had no fewer than six days off after today’s shift (which have not in fact even elapsed yet at the time of writing this). With the weather expected to allow us to return home this evening, things could not have worked out better.
Yet, despite the smoothness of last night’s happenings, there was still a bit of relief in returning to the normal morning routine on the unit. Although we all appeared slightly bedraggled with our uniforms ruffled and our hair only somewhat tamed, it was a brand new day for our patients and it was time to get to work.
Lights… Camera… Action…!
I stepped into my patients room with my usual cheerfulness, ready to make them smile. “Gooood morning!”