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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : BINDING THE WOUNDS : 'We were hoping we could make it to daylight.'

January 30, 1994|Ed Lowder | Lowder, 44, an emergency room physician, was at Northridge Hospital Medical Center when the quake hit. and

I had been working the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift on Sunday night. There are some sleep rooms up on the second floor above the Emergency Room, and I had gone up there just to sleep for a few hours before I went home.

Around 4:30, I woke up with this loud rumbling noise and I heard this lady screaming. It took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on. I finally realized that we had had an earthquake.

I stumbled out and there was a nurse standing in the hallway outside one of the sleep rooms, screaming. All of the bookcases and the refrigerator had fallen in her room. I got my glasses and went downstairs. When I saw all of the structural damage in the stucco and everything in the stairwell, I realized that we had had a pretty major earthquake.

We were real concerned about whether our structure was safe, since we appeared to be pretty severely impacted. We knew we were going to be inundated with patients within probably the next half hour, so we started setting up plans as to what to do with all these people.

So we decided, one, for safety and, two, just because of the volume of patients, to move our triage assessment area out into the parking lot. It was probably no more than 15 or 20 minutes that we started having the walking wounded walking in or coming in by car.

We didn't have so many paramedic runs because they basically realized that we were in severe shape ourselves. Bad shape. And a lot of the more seriously injured patients were taken by air to outlying hospitals.

We were really hoping we could make it to daylight before we got too overwhelmed. Probably the most seriously injured people that we saw in the first hour were people with heart attacks. Then later on in the day, before noontime, we saw several broken backs and head injuries.

We tried to keep as many people outside of the hospital as possible just in case of a severe aftershock. But people with heart attacks, or people with chest pains, we had to bring those inside because that is where we have monitors. Lacerations, women in labor and orthopedic cases, we brought them all into the immediate emergency room itself, because we felt, after we looked around a little bit, that structurally we were OK, even though we had a lot of cracks on the walls.

But a couple hundred patients were sitting outside. Some people were sitting in chairs, some were lying on gurneys. There were all kinds of people just milling around. I have been told that we delivered 20 babies in the emergency room that day. Three of them were in the parking lot. Two of them were stillborns, premature.

Considering it was mass chaos, it was actually pretty well organized. I don't think there was ever any real hysteria or anything either among the professional people or among the patients.

Normally we see about a 120 or a 130 patients a day, and we saw somewhere on the order of 500 patients in the first 24 hours. In the first three days after the quake, I probably got six to eight hours of sleep.

There were so many people displaced from their homes. I thought, what do we do with the people that come in here with minor injuries but have nowhere to go? You can't admit them to the hospital because we don't have beds, but they don't have any place to go. There were a lot of people who slept in the hospital lobby that first night.

As soon I realized we had a major earthquake, I called my home but the lines were down. I knew I couldn't leave because we were going to be inundated with patients. It was about two hours before my wife was able to drive in here from Chatsworth with our two children. I found out that my family was OK but the inside of our house was pretty trashed. That was tough, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn't leave. I felt that I had to stay. I figured that they would get along OK on their own.

My wife and I have decided that we need to make our house more safe in general, for both earthquakes and fires, and have a more prepared plan.

As far as the emergency room, if we ever get the 8.0 earthquake here, I have some major concerns about whether our emergency medical system will be able to function. I feel like this was a significant burden to the EMS system. If you have an 8.0 in this same area, I think the devastation would be enormous.

It would be every man for himself.

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