fb-pixel Skip to main content

Boston hospitals battle to get patients out, staff in

There was little activity at South Station Tuesday.
There was little activity at South Station Tuesday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/Globe Staff

One Boston hospital administrator called it a crisis: Surgeries canceled because there weren't enough beds, taxis hired to ferry patients who had no other way home.

At another hospital, stockpiles of linens were running so perilously low that staff began rationing them.

Meanwhile, still other hospitals were forced to rely on the generosity of Boston police officers to deliver essential staff members to work.

With snow piled up to historic levels, and the region's subways and commuter rail systems halted Tuesday, administrators labored to keep their hospital doors open, hobbled by a stranded workforce and patients unable to get home.

"This has put us in a capacity crisis situation," said Dr. Paul Biddinger, Massachusetts General Hospital's medical director for preparedness.


Many patients were well enough to leave the hospital but couldn't find rides, so Mass. General paid for taxis for them. And MGH, Boston's biggest teaching hospital, canceled surgeries that weren't emergencies because its 999-bed facility was overflowing, Biddinger said.

"Most hospitals are pretty full usually, but at this level it's close to unprecedented," he said.

Some managers at Mass. General went door-to-door on their drive into the city, picking up as many colleagues as their cars could handle, and other staffers slept overnight on mattresses in the hospital's conference rooms because they worried they wouldn't make it back in Tuesday, Biddinger said.

It was a similar scenario at Boston Medical Center.

"We know of numerous staff members who have walked considerable distances or even skied into work in order to be here for our patients," hospital spokeswoman Ellen Slingsby said.

So many staffers ended up camped out that the hospital served more than 1,000 free lunches.

Throughout Monday's snowfall and Tuesday's massive cleanup, hospitals managed to tend to a robust number of snow-related injuries.

At South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, four patients had fingers amputated Monday after they mangled their hands while trying to clean clogged snow blowers, hospital spokeswoman Sarah Darcy said. Biddinger, of Mass. General, said doctors there cared for several patients Tuesday who were injured after falling off roofs while trying to clear snow.


The commuting concerns at South Shore Hospital were not as much about hospital staff members — most don't rely on trains — but on the workers at a Somerville company that cleans the facility's linens. So many of the linen company's employees didn't make it to work that South Shore was worried about running out of clean sheets and towels.

"We have had to conserve linen," Darcy said. That doesn't mean the hospital is reusing linens, she was quick to add, but rather that it was keeping a "close eye on the supplies."

Administrators also were keeping a close eye on an office building the hospital leases in Rockland for its nurses who visit patients in their homes; the weight of snow on the roof appeared to be reaching capacity.

"There were ceiling tiles coming down, and the roof was making strange noises" underneath piles of snow, Darcy said. Workers were rushed out of the structure and relocated, while building inspectors determine whether the facility is safe.

Back in Boston, hospitals in the cramped Longwood Medical Area grappled with a cornucopia of issues.

Several surgical practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center canceled sessions for patients who need to be evaluated before and after surgery because staff members simply couldn't get in. Other employees at Beth Israel Deaconess who had to get to work arrived via sport utility vehicles rented by the hospital, while some others relied on the Boston Police Department to drive them, hospital spokesman Jerry Berger said.


"We were begging [for] extra space in nearby parking garages because so many staffers were driving in," Berger said. "Dana-Farber [Cancer Institute] canceled some of their clinics so we were able to get some parking spaces over there."

Beth Israel Deaconess is one of seven hospitals in the Longwood area that routinely depend on the Medical Academic and Scientific Community Organization, or MASCO, to coordinate transportation and parking for thousands of employees.

Some MASCO administrators slept at the office since Sunday, as the storm bore down, to ensure the hospitals remained open, president Marilyn Swartz-Lloyd said.

The organization owns or leases 2,300 parking spaces in the area and a fleet of 37 buses that normally carry employees from subway stations to their offices. With so many other area businesses shuttered Tuesday, MASCO easily handled parking for the droves of hospital workers who normally take the train but instead drove to work Tuesday, Swartz-Lloyd said.

But traffic was another story.

The Longwood area is notorious for epic traffic jams even in fair weather. Swartz-Lloyd said they were ready for the onslaught.

"We had police details out that we called to be at the heavy corners," she said. "We had a lot of help from the police."


Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.