Hospitals prepare for stranded employees during papal visit

Michael Griffin stocks linen carts at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Michael Griffin stocks linen carts at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

For thousands of employees at hospitals in or near the papal security zone, Pope Francis' visit next month will mean a three-day sleepover at the office.

Some bosses are even trying to make it fun.

People will be working so hard that they may be tired enough to actually sleep on the cots and air mattresses hospitals will scatter about their campuses. Their supervisors swear medical workers are used to spartan conditions after years of storm and disaster duty.

For the downtime between 12-hour shifts, hospital managers are thinking up ways to keep workers who don't want to brave the crowds outside their doors from going stir crazy. There will be free food, movies, game rooms, maybe even karaoke.

"There's something wonderful about everybody just having a good time," said John Lasky, chief human resources officer at Temple University Hospital. While Temple is well north of the neighborhoods most disrupted by the pope's visit, many employees live in parts of the city that will be closed to traffic over the weekend. Temple expects several hundred workers to stay over.

"If it's done right, it actually translates to more positive medical outcomes," Lasky said, because more "engaged" employees do better work. "It builds camaraderie. It builds trust. It builds mutual respect."

Officials have been planning for months how to have enough staff on hand to take care of their regular patient load, sick tourists, and - God forbid - victims of a mass trauma.

One answer is obvious. Do what they do during blizzards and hurricanes. Bring out the cots and let people who can't go home get some sleep.

Hospitals within the Center City and West Philadelphia traffic box have canceled elective procedures on the Friday before the pope comes to town and sometimes the Monday after. They've lengthened hours earlier in the week to meet the increased demand. Lankenau Medical Center, which is near St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, where the pope will be staying, is in the same boat.

All the extra supplies and hours will cost extra money, though no one wanted to say how much, or where the funds will come from.

Richard Webster, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's president, said hospitals are having to both reduce revenue by cutting their workload and increase costs by bringing in extra staff. The food and supplies for staff add to the expense.

"We expect this will be a significant financial challenge," he said.

The hospitals most affected by the traffic and public-transit restrictions are Thomas Jefferson University and Hahnemann University Hospitals; Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; and three facilities in the University of Pennsylvania Health System: Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital, and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Cooper University Hospital in Camden, near the to-be-closed Benjamin Franklin Bridge, also is expecting traffic problems.

P.J. Brennan, chief medical officer for Penn Medicine, said the system's city hospitals will begin winding down in the week before the papal visit so that patients who need to spend only a day or two in the hospital aren't stuck there all weekend. The system will strive to enter the papal weekend at just 75 to 80 percent of capacity, but will staff as if it were a busy, completely full weekday. In case of a disaster, employees who can walk or bike to work will be summoned.

Area hospitals have to be prepared for mass casualties and the spread of infectious diseases during the papal weekend, he said, but are more likely to see an uptick in falls, sprains, and dehydration.

Brennan plans to sleep on an air mattress behind his desk in his office. The office has a glass wall and hair-trigger motion sensors that turn on the lights. "It's not going to be the most restful experience," he said.

How employees will be paid for all this time at work will vary depending on their contracts and their hospital. Some get nothing for sleeping over. Penn pays a $10-per-hour "readiness" fee.

Hospital leaders said that, when possible, they are choosing employees who live closest to work for shifts during the papal weekend.

"I don't want to be scrambling for those doctors in a situation where they can't get here," said Herb Cushing, chief medical officer at Temple.

Hospitals are doing what they can to spread sleepers out and keep rooms quiet so the staff is rested.

The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania is helping hospitals requisition more than 3,000 cots from an emergency stash, said Mark Ross, the organization's regional emergency preparedness manager.

Jefferson, which is expecting 1,400 employees per day to need sleeping arrangements, has asked for 2,000 cots. It already has 200 air mattresses, and more are on order. It is encouraging workers to bring their own sleeping bags.

Penn will have more than 1,300 cots on hand at the three hospitals. It will be bringing in an extra 15,000 pounds of linens - 3,000 sheets, 1,500 pillows, 1,500 bath towels - for staff at a cost of $24,000. (Between patients and staff, Penn will be taking delivery of 65,000 pounds of linens before the weekend siege.)

Both Penn and Jefferson have ordered portable shower trailers for staff.

"Half of us didn't know there was such a thing" as shower trucks, said Stacy Vahey, Jefferson's vice president of human resources.

Jefferson has ordered four shower trailers. Penn ordered five. Cleanliness doesn't come cheap: Penn's shower bill for the weekend is $23,000.

Ross said hospitals are renting large freezers and refrigerators to store extra food and medications.

Many are providing food for employees, either through vouchers for the cafeteria or special meals. Jefferson is planning hot buffet dinners for Saturday and Sunday nights and possibly boxed lunches and breakfasts.

"We want people to be comfortable when they're here, when they're inconvenienced," said Lankenau's CEO, Phillip Robinson.

Hospitals are giving more thought to entertainment than they would during, say, a sudden weather emergency.

Penn will have movies and big-screen TVs for viewing the pope and the Eagles. Karaoke is under consideration. Friends Central School is letting employees from neighboring Lankenau use its gym - and showers. There's talk of softball games. Robinson said there will be movies. The pope's Mass will be broadcast in the auditorium. A eucharistic minister will be on hand for communion.

Temple is planning a game room with Monopoly, Pictionary, and Wii games. There will be movies - likely wholesome comedies - every three hours and possibly some athletic events dubbed the "papal challenge."

"The most popular person will be the one coordinating our games and movies for the people stuck here," Temple's Cushing said. "I tell people, 'Think of it like a submarine, and you're stuck in it.' "


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