Even in snowstorm, a hospital must stay open

Kim Ingram woke up at 5:30 a.m. Monday and saw the snow piled about 8 inches high at her Rabun County home. “This may be the big one,’’ she said to herself.

It took 25 minutes for Ingram’s four-wheel drive to crawl the five miles to Mountain Lakes Medical Center, where she is CEO.

The 25-bed hospital in the town of Clayton had already been preparing for a big snowfall. That planning, and the ongoing medical services during the snowstorm, show how a hospital contends with keeping health care available amid a winter wonderland.

The winter storm that hit Sunday night was one of the worst in recent Georgia history. It was so big that the new governor, Nathan Deal, was inaugurated Monday with a  fraction of the usual fanfare. Most people in North and Middle Georgia heeded official warnings to stay home and avoid the treacherous roads, and countless stores and other businesses simply shut down.

But a hospital is one place that must stay open in a storm like this. And Mountain Lakes is the only hospital in mountainous Rabun County.

The medical center started planning at the end of last week, when weather services began predicting a serious winter storm. “We placed some extra orders for food and medication,’’ Ingram said. The backup generator was topped off with fuel, and extra sleeping space for employees was set up in ancillary buildings.

Staff, including an emergency room physician, came into work early, before the snow began falling. “The night shift is sleeping here,’’ Ingram said Monday afternoon as snow was still falling. About a foot of snow was predicted for the county, tucked in the northeast corner of Georgia.

No doctor’s office was open in the county Monday, Ingram said, so anyone needing medical care had to reach Mountain Lakes. None of the roads had been plowed by Monday afternoon, either, but the EMS was running, she said.

Many local patients canceled elective procedures due to the storm. But the emergency room has stayed busy, with the regular heart problems and chest pains combined with flu cases and accidents. Ingram added that many more people suffer falls and orthopedic injuries after it stops snowing, when they begin braving the outdoors.

This is Ingram’s second winter in the county, so she has seen snow emergencies before. “If you live in northeast Georgia, you have to be prepared for it,’’ she said. A hospital must not only have clinical staff available, but also food and maintenance personnel.

Ingram herself will spend Monday night at the hospital. And the freezing conditions will continue. “We’re taking care of patients,’’ she said. “We’re here to serve the community.’’