Emergency Nurse 'Drowning' In Patients, Calls Fire Department To Assist


By Sophie Putka

What's a nurse to do when the emergency department (ED) itself is the emergency? In Silverdale, Washington, a member of the overwhelmed ED staff at St. Michael Medical Center, called in the fire department.

According to Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue, a nurse called 911 through an admin line last Saturday around 10:30 p.m., asking for help. The chief, Jay Christian said, "The charge nurse expressed two times that they feel like they're drowning because they had over 45 patients in the waiting room and only five nurses. She said, 'We're in dire straits, we need the fire department help, can somebody come up here and help us?'

Two firefighters cleaned rooms and beds in the ED, moved patients, and took vital signs. Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue wrote that the firefighters were there for 90 minutes: "We made the decision to send a two-person crew to assist because we were treating it like any other call for help in our community."

Potentially exacerbating the dire situation at the ED was a ransomware attack on CommonSpirit Health, the parent company of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, which runs St. Michael Medical Center. Other hospitals in the area also experienced disruptions in care, affecting access to patient records, lab results, and even elevators.

On the same day the nurse called the Kitsap 911 admin line, the hospital's electronic records systems were experiencing outages. This, along with a shortage of staff, was a "perfect storm" that backed up ambulances and kept a flood of sick patients waiting in ambulances -- one for as long as 8 hours, according to Kelsay Irby, RN, an ED nurse who spoke with the local paper.

St. Michael Medical Center shared a statement via email: "At St. Michael Medical Center, similar to other hospitals in the state, we've been experiencing high patient volumes and staffing shortages. We continue to prioritize patients with the most urgent medical conditions, even when we are experiencing capacity challenges. We work to manage appropriate staffing levels and to balance capacity system-wide as effectively as we can. We recognize this is a frustrating time for our patients and staff and we appreciate the support of our partners as we work to meet the health care needs of the community."

As cyberattacks on healthcare reach record highs and staff shortages are exacerbated by the pandemic, nurses are growing increasingly concerned for the safety of their patients -- and themselves. But calling the fire department is a rare move, the Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue spokesperson confirmed: "We have not received a call like this before."


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