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Patients are loaded onto an ambulance outside NYU Langone Medical Center in New York as the facility was evacuated Monday night, October, 29, 2012. In the midst of an outage caused by Hurricane Sandy, the hospital's backup power generator failed prompting the evacuation of most patients.

Chang W. Lee, New York Times

A nerve-wracking evacuation from NY hospital

  • Article by: NINA BERNSTEIN
  • New York Times
  • October 30, 2012 - 9:36 PM

NEW YORK - When the power went out at NYU Langone Medical Center on Monday night, Christine Chin, 31, was in a 14th-floor intensive care unit for transplant patients, tethered to the electronic equipment that pumped critical fluids into her system. Her husband, who had been at her side all day, was finally getting something to eat in the first-floor cafeteria, the only visitor among about 40 hospital staff members.

"Everyone on the floor started panicking -- there were no lights whatsoever," the husband, John Tran, 31, recalled on Tuesday from Mount Sinai Hospital.

His wife, suffering serious complications from a liver transplant, was among the last NYU Langone patients to be evacuated after the storm surge from Sandy knocked out power and crippled backup generators at the sprawling medical center in New York City.

"I needed to get upstairs to my wife," Tran said. Clutching his macaroni and cheese, he said, he followed nurses with flashlights up the 14 flights of stairs, barely able to believe what he saw out the stairwell windows.

"First Avenue was engulfed in water to knee level," he said. "The water was rocking, left and right -- waves on First Avenue. I said to a nurse, 'Is this for real or is this like a movie?' "

The nurses with flashlights exited the stairs at the 11th floor. The pale light of street lamps on the water outside went out too.

Tran, who works for UNICEF, carried on alone in the dark to the 14th floor, where he found his wife still sleeping.

'Low battery'

Battery power had kicked in to operate the machines monitoring and hydrating her and four other patients in the special transplant unit. Attentive nurses checked vital signs manually every 15 minutes and assured him that backup generators would soon take over.

But they never did. Instead, at about 1 a.m., doctors began calling to find hospitals able and willing to accept the critically ill transplant patients.

"Her battery-powered things said 'low battery,' " Tran said, "and I was scared that it was going to die."

Chin, a manager with the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has had a series of operations to try to repair leaks in her bile ducts after part of her husband's liver was used to replace her cancerous one five years ago. The latest surgical procedure was done Monday afternoon just before the storm hit. Metal stents used in one repair were found to have migrated to her stomach, Tran said; she is unable to keep food down and was being fed through a special machine.

By 3 a.m., all the machines in the room began to beep as they ran out of battery power. "It's like a chorus of beeps," her husband said. "We had a window, and you can see the storm happening. You can see Hurricane Sandy there."

By then, the couple had been told that Chin and three of the other transplant patients were being evacuated to Mount Sinai. But they had to wait their turn.

'Really awesome'

At 3:30 a.m., the first battery died. Minutes later, three New York City firefighters and a resident carrying a flashlight arrived to carry Chin, a tiny woman who weighs 100 pounds, down the stairs in a plastic cocoon-like device known as a sled, an oxygen mask over her face.

Tran, following her, saw the designation Fire Engine 108 stamped on the back of the firefighters' jackets.

"They were really awesome," he said.

On the first floor, they joined a long line of about 20 patients, each with a doctor and two nurses, waiting to be assigned to waiting ambulances.

Finally, they were speeding north through the empty, storm-tossed streets of New York.

"It was surreal," Tran said. "No lights but the ambulance lights. I said to the nurse, 'I've never seen New York like this before.' "

At 6 a.m., he finally saw his wife tucked into bed in a warm, well-lighted hospital, as the city awoke to daunting damage.

"It was," he said, "like the end of a long journey."

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