If history is any guide, about 100 pregnant women and 10 organ transplant patients will have to get to Philadelphia hospitals the weekend Pope Francis is in town.
Maybe heaven can wait, but some medical events can't.
Given that massive security for the papal visit could make it tough to get to city hospitals on Sept. 26 and 27, health-care providers are striving to reassure patients - even though plans are in flux.
"We want to assure you that we are working closely with the city to develop special plans to ensure that you can travel safely to the hospital for your delivery or seek care for any special circumstances that may arise," the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) wrote to patients due around the time of the pope's visit. "We will keep you updated as plans are finalized."
One of those patients, Julie Berson, 31, whose first child is due Sept. 30, is trying to remain calm, telling herself that a city under virtual lockdown "is just another variable in the mix."
"I don't think anybody is doing anything wrong," said Berson, a lawyer who lives and works in Center City. "You can't really blame the hospitals. But when you're telling pregnant women to relax, it doesn't work that well."
City officials have outlined layers of security - including bridge and road closures, security checkpoints, and limited public transit - to protect the pope and up to 1.5 million visitors. Measures will be phased in the evening of Sept. 25 and continue through the morning of Sept. 28, making for four very unusual days.
In addition to HUP, there are five major hospitals inside the 4.7-square-mile "traffic box" that will be closed to inbound traffic: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Pennsylvania Hospital, Hahnemann University Hospital, and Jefferson University Hospital.
The hospitals have rescheduled elective and nonemergency procedures such as colonoscopies to avoid the four-day period. They offered reassuring, albeit vague, statements about provisions for maternity and other can't-wait patients. But a linchpin will be ambulances, because emergency vehicles will have dedicated roads within the restricted traffic box.
The Delaware Valley Health Council, whose members include hospitals and health-care facilities, is developing an FAQ for its website that says patients with emergencies - including an estimated 100 women expected to go into labor - can call 911: "The most important thing to remember is that wherever you are in southeastern Pennsylvania, you can call 911 for help getting to your hospital," it states.
Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia is outside the traffic box, but likely to feel the impact of diversions, and of patients who cannot drive into the restricted zone.
Herb Cushing, Temple's chief medical officer, didn't sound fazed by upcoming disruptions, perhaps because he spent a decade at Indiana University Hospital. It sees an annual surge in activity as hundreds of thousands of people attend the Indy 500.
"We have 3,000 deliveries a year at Temple, and 1,000 of those women come to the hospital without being known to us," he said. "We're used to taking care of [unanticipated] women and babies every day, and it comes out fine. So that's not much different."
As for organ transplants, Cushing said he has instructed his transplant team to confer with him if an organ becomes available for a patient wait-listed at Temple.
"I want to have a conversation to make sure we have everything we need," he said. "Transplantation is a team sport, and the teams are large."
While time is of the essence once an organ is removed from a donor, the collection and transport process takes hours, so recipients would have ample time to get to the hospital. Richard D. Hasz, vice president of clinical services at Gift of Life, which coordinates transplants in the region, said his crew will adapt to papal security, just as it does for a snowstorm.
"Our building is in the [traffic-box] zone, but we are going to be 100 percent open for business," Hasz said. "We have the staff and resources to be able to meet the needs of donor families, hospitals," and wait-listed patients.
Berson, the expectant mother, said she and her husband, Benjamin Trayes, are fortunate that they can walk to a hospital if necessary. She intends to deliver at HUP, at 34th and Spruce Streets, but her backup plan is Pennsylvania Hospital, several blocks from their home.
Berson also hired a doula with experience in both hospitals who will be nearby during the suspenseful weekend.
"We're in a lucky place," Berson said. "But I can't imagine going on a long trek with your overnight bag, your car seat, your doula, and stopping every two minutes for a contraction."
Neither can Mike Aichenbaum, founder and head of Hosts for Hospitals, a Bryn Mawr-based nonprofit that arranges free or low-cost accommodations in local volunteer homes for patients and their families. Anticipating a scarcity of hotels within 100 miles of the city, Aichenbaum has signed up 40 additional host families since April. Now, he is seeking 20 more hosts who live not far from Children's Hospital at 34th and Spruce Streets. They will lodge pregnant women carrying babies already known to need special care or surgery after delivery at Children's.
"I would hate to think that a woman who had to get to CHOP for a high-risk birth couldn't do it in time," Aichenbaum said.
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