More snow challenges for local hospitals?

As the snow falls Thursday, Ronnie Murphy sells umbrellas for a bargain price of $3 near the Market Street subway on 15th Street. (Sarah Schu / Staff Photographer)

As the snow falls in what could be the fourth major storm of the winter, hospitals across the region geared up their now-well practiced contingency plans.

The key element of preparation was making sure staff can get to work. While some hospitals cancel nonessential appointments and procedures when a big storm looms, urgent cases such as heart attacks, major accidents and births can’t be put off.

To ensure they have key personnel on hand, the hospitals take a variety of approaches. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia asked employees with four-wheel-drive vehicles to volunteer to transport key staff in to work and back home. Lourdes Medical Center in South Jersey has a cadre of community volunteers to help doctors, nurses and others get there.

For the last storm, Doylestown Hospital made rooms available for staff to stay overnight, and Bucks County hospital rescheduled may non-urgent surgeries. Cooper University Hospital in Camden also rescheduled nonessential appointments and procedures last time around.

Other institutions such as the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Abington Memorial Hospital chose not to cancel surgeries – at least not yet.Despite all the preparations, recent storms have forced hospital executives and staff, particularly those in suburban areas, to go to extraordinary lengths to provide life-saving care.

On Saturday, Feb. 7, as more than two feet of snow was falling, The Chester County Hospital got four emergency patients in the midst of heart attacks, the first at 8:30 a.m. The patient needed to get the blockage causing his heart attack opened, which hospitals try to do within 90 minutes of a patient’s arrival in the ER.

That Saturday morning, Joe Lewis, interventional cardiologist on call, was snowed in at his home in Willistown, Pa. The doctor called Dell Williams, the catheterization lab tech, who was also on call. Her husband owns a dump truck. So, with her 9-year-old in tow, Dell and her husband retrieved the stranded physician and delivered him and the tech to the hospital in time to open the patient’s blocked artery within the 90-minute window.

That sequence of events repeated itself later that day after Atul Sheth of West Chester developed chest pain while shoveling his driveway. Sheth was taken by ambulance to the West Chester hospital. Lewis and Williams, who had both gone home after the first case, were again rounded up by Williams’ dump truck-driving husband and delivered to the hospital in time to reopen Sheth’s heart -  68 minutes after he arrived at the ER, again the 90-minute national standard in such cases.

On the following Wednesday, St. Mary Medical Center in Bucks County was prepared for a similar emergency with on-call staff staying overnight at the hospital and a member of its security team prepared to pick up a cardiologist in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

So when Tom Schofield, 78, of Levittown suffered a heart attack shoveling snow, the hospital was ready. Within minutes of his arrival in the ER, Schofield was taken to the cath lab, sedated, and the procedure to unblock the artery started. The blockage was cleared within minutes, but the doctors discovered other blockages and six days later performed open heart surgery. Schofield was up and walking the hallway on his ward on the seventh day.

As the snow continues to fall today, with up to a foot in the forecast, hospitals across the region are preparing for encore performances.

Readers can review the performance of their local hospital in treating patients with heart attacks as well as the number of open heart and other procedures that their local hospitals do using The Inquirer’s interactive heart database. (No, it will not tell you which hospitals perform best in the snow.) Earlier this month a special report by The Inquirer and The Daily News examined the latest advances in heart treatments available at