ER on wheels: Mobile center opens doors to patients after Sandy



In anticipation of a forecasted Nor’easter – expected to usher in rain, snow and high winds to states already struggling to pick themselves up in the wake of superstorm Sandy – a mobile emergency department is bringing much-needed help to local hospitals.

Hosted by Hackensack University Medical Center, in Hackensack, N.J., the New Jersey Mobile Satellite Department has been deployed twice already in the past week-and-a-half at the request of the state health department.  

The mobile ER is made up of 15 trucks, including three large ones used as treatment areas.  There are also special trucks to produce oxygen and interconnect the vehicles. The trucks are ‘full-service’ ERs with monitor beds, ultrasound capabilities, pharmaceutical reservoirs and an entire support team of doctors, nurses and technicians.  In a 24-hour period, the service – including equipment, personnel and supplies – costs approximately $15,000.

“On the outside, they look like box trucks,” Dr. Joseph Feldman, the chairman of emergency services at Hackensack told “But from the inside, you would never know you were in a truck.  You would think you were in a state-of-the-art emergency department.”

According to Feldman, the 43-feet long trucks were designed as a prototype five years ago, funded by the Department of Defense to be designed and built as the hospital saw fit.  

“They can be rapidly deployed within an hour of driving to a place,” he said.  “We designed them in a way so they can be maneuvered in urban and suburban areas and set up [quickly].”

The first time the mobile ER was deployed this year, it was to New Jersey’s Somerset County, the Sunday before Sandy made landfall.  In 2011, the county was flooded by Hurricane Irene, and medical personnel were unable to move in and out of the area.

“We were requested to pre-deploy to that area, so we saw a bunch of patients there – we even delivered a premature baby,” Feldman said.

The mother, he explained, had had a ‘harrowing’ experience arriving at the site.  

“The initial ambulance go stuck in the mud, so they had to transfer her to a police vehicle, and then another ambulance [brought her to the site],” Feldman said.  “Because of high winds, we took the equipment to a church hall and did an ultrasound…We were able to deliver her in a very safe environment, and it was a healthy baby boy just over five pounds.”

The mobile ER was then re-deployed later in the week to Brick, N.J., to support Ocean Medical Center and three other hospitals in the area.  As of Monday, the mobile site had seen more than 150 patients, alleviating the burden of nearby emergency departments experiencing a massive surge in patients.

Dr. Doug Finefrock, the vice chairman of Hackensack’s emergency department said he was able to take care of a young women who had waited 10 hours at a local ER and couldn’t be seen.  

The woman, who was pregnant, was suffering from abdominal pains and was worried she was suffering a miscarriage.  She hadn't yet seen an OB-GYN, so Finefrock did an ultrasound and was able to determine the pregnancy was fine and show her the baby's heartbeat for the first time.

The mobile operation was supposed to end Tuesday, Feldman explained; but due to an incoming Nor’easter, the state’s DOH has requested the hospital keep its assets in place and monitor the situation through Thursday.  According to Feldman, the trucks, which can run on generators or landlines, can be set up indefinitely.

Due to the utility of the mobile ER in the aftermath of Sandy, Feldman said “we’ve gotten a lot of interest around the country, inquiring about our assets and how they work, not only from medical centers but other government agencies…On a good day, ER rooms are congested and crowded; add a disaster on top, and it’s much worse. These vehicles, along with a tent hospital, allow communities to expand emergency service and provide needed health care to citizens.”

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