The ‘heroes’ helping kidney dialysis patients during storms

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One in 500 Americans is on kidney dialysis. Extreme weather events can threaten their lives. Kidney care experts tell Insider how they keep patients alive when big storms hit. As the phone rings with a weather notification, the teams click a metaphorical red button. Something is loading.

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On Christmas Day 2022, when most upstate New Yorkers were preparing to enjoy the festivities, Michael Sloma was on a mission of grace to save a life.

The area was still reeling from a once-a-century blizzard that had claimed dozens of lives, and Sloma was determined that a woman who needed dialysis would not join their ranks.

Sloma, group vice president of operations at US Renal Care, is one of the many unsung heroes who spring into action when snowstorms, hurricanes or wildfires hit the United States.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, one in 500 Americans is on dialysis, and everyone knows it’s their lifeline. The chaos of an extreme weather event can put many at risk of missing their most important treatments.

When snow and hurricane-level winds battered Buffalo, New York, for four straight days last Christmas and residents took shelter in their homes, Sloma hit the treacherous roads.

“We’re used to dealing with snow and clearing snow, so we really don’t mind that,” he told Insider. “But they were starting to tell the news that it was going to be a really bad storm – a generational type blizzard storm. The conditions were such that you literally couldn’t see a foot in front of your car. We had a total of 23 of the people stuck in various clinics – about half were patients and the other half were staff.”

Most concerning was a snow-trapped nursing home resident who needed dialysis and needed to be evacuated as soon as possible.

“Six of us dug through the snow for three hours, creating a path 30 feet long by 4 to 5 feet high to the parking lot, but which did not reach the road. We managed to convince a nice gentleman who had construction equipment to dig a path for us to bring our vehicles into the main road parking lot,” Sloma said.

The team prevailed and brought the patient to Sloma’s vehicle up the road, but the plan to take her to another nursing home failed as it was also snowbound.

“So I put her in the back seat of my car, and together with the nurse, we rushed her to the local hospital. She’s now doing great,” he said.

By car, boat, plow Fort Myers Beach, Florida, aerial view of damaged property after Hurricane Ian. Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group

As Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas and Louisiana in 2017, Ariel Brigham sat on the roof of her Houston home, waiting to be rescued.

She saw the water engulf her house and flood the area around her. She was trapped.

But rising waters weren’t the only danger Brigham faced. The hurricane prevented her from undergoing kidney dialysis for seven days.

Even after reaching the safety of a friend’s house, Brigham was still in mortal danger.

“I took in 30 pounds of fluid and was extremely swollen – my face, my hands, my legs, my whole body was super swollen. It was hard, and pretty much all I could do was sleep “, she said.

When she finally got to the hospital, she said, “I got to the point where they said my heart was slowing down. But even then I had to wait another four hours before I could go on dialysis.”

Like many dialysis patients, Brigham needed treatment every three days to replace normal kidney function. Dialysis patients need their blood purged through this procedure. Each missed session increases the risk of death by 10%.

LaVarne Burton, president and CEO of the American Kidney Fund, told Insider, “I’ve known people who skipped even one session and sadly passed away.”

To meet the health challenge of extreme weather, dialysis care providers across the United States have created disaster preparedness teams to keep their patients alive. The units are made up of meteorologists, utility company advisors and patient care staff who meet twice a day when extreme weather puts patients’ lives at risk.

Mary Dittrich, executive vice president and chief medical officer of US Renal Care, and Phil Sarnowski, senior vice president and business transformation partner at US Renal Care, described how teams combat a potential weather disaster.

Disaster response teams can be a lifesaver, whether driving a car through a storm, navigating a boat through a flood, or driving a snow plow through a blizzard.

As the phone rings with a notification of an impending weather event, teams click a metaphorical red button. Disaster preparedness teams are moving quickly to reorganize dialysis appointments and ensure patients can access treatment facilities, food and clinical supplies.

Members of the Red Cross and National Guard are deploying, government offices are given notice and health commissioners and firefighters remain on standby.

Sarnowski told Insider they also have companies ready to provide water and power generators with just 24 hours notice.

A snowplow driver talks to a homeowner while clearing feet of snow from a residential street in Draper, Utah on February 23, 2023. GEORGE FREY/AFP

Most American kidney patients have their dialysis at home. There are two types of dialysis: one, called hemodialysis, uses a machine; and the other, peritoneal dialysis, uses a tube in the abdomen.

“For patients on peritoneal dialysis, who represent the majority of our home patients, we train them in manual exchanges, which means they can continue their treatments, even in the absence of electricity, by manually connecting and disconnecting and causing fluids to flow into their stomach or abdomen and then drains,” Dittrich said.

Senior connection peritoneal dialysis with catheter at home. Getty Images

For many reasons, but primarily because end-stage kidney disease often prevents a person from working, many dialysis patients live in a low income bracket.

It can be financially crippling, Burton said. Patients often pay around $10,000 a year out of pocket for the treatment, she said.

That’s why the American Kidney Fund has developed a disaster relief program.

Patients can get $250 for weather emergencies, and it can “replace medicine if they lost it, it can fund kidney food, transportation, temporary housing. Anything they need to survive this crisis,” she said. said.

‘Extraordinary levels of commitment’ An abandoned ambulance on the side of the road after a historic blizzard hit Buffalo on Sunday, Dec. 25, 2022. Photo by Malik Rainey for The Washington Post

Ms. Dittrich said she was deeply concerned about the increasing number of adverse weather events and emergencies.

“I strongly believe these are due to climate change and will get worse,” she said. “I’m appalled at the number of those we see that we have to prepare for, while being confident in our abilities. But they challenge us, they are very stressful and difficult.”

Dittrich and Sarnowski said the heroes of these stories are the staff providing care.

For patients who receive their treatments at the clinics, they see healthcare staff at least 12 hours a week, Dittrich said, and patients and staff “become like family,” hence the “extraordinary levels of engagement.” “.

Kidney dialysis patient. Getty Images

The disaster dialysis program has produced a “model for coordinated efforts among historical competitors,” Dittrich said.

“Medical companies work together. We take patients from other providers, we take hospital patients, they take ours, we share supplies, we share generators, we share water,” Dittrich said. The collaborations were “validating, affirming and inspiring,” she said.

For Sloma, who organized the lifesaving rescue of a dialysis patient in snowy upstate New York, that’s certainly true.

“All things considered, even though I had to shovel a lot of snow, it was probably the most meaningful Christmas day I’ve ever had,” he said.

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