Extreme weather in USA: A first-hand experience

Written by: Bharat Shastri
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"How far is the County Road?" I asked the polite Police Officer who didn't want to get out of the comparative warmth of his car. The glare of flashing lights on the top of his vehicle was quite a distraction.

"Oh, it's just a couple of hundred yards, by the school, Sir. If that road is clear, you can still drive to the next city" he said. In front of his car was a huge 18 wheeler, which had slid and parked diagonally on the road, effectively blocking the State Route 37.

I went back to my car and got into it, rubbing my hurting ears. The cold wind was merciless. I pulled back, turned around and drove off to the 4-way stop intersection where the Red lights were blinking caring two hoots to the lancing breeze. I turned left and drove. Being used to driving on dry roads till the day before, I hit the brake pedal, and felt the car swerving. I immediately took off my foot from the brake pedal and handled the steering. With some deft maneuvers, the car started to roll straight and I was back on the road again.

I was driving to work on Monday, January 6, 2014, after waking up to the cold morning of lowest ever temperatures in North America in recent past. I had got a call from my boss on Sunday, that it is going to be really tough to drive on Monday. He suggested I drive the previous night and reach safe to the hospital instead of driving in the morning. But since it had already started snowing hard on the Sunday evening, I decided to drive the next morning when it would stop snowing. May be, I put too much faith on the ability of emergency services in clearing the snow on roads. It was actually not bad till I crossed the outskirts of the Capital of the State. Once I crossed the 206th fields allowing free flow of cold air were discharging the powdery snow on to the roads. All along, there were huge piles of snow that had drifted from the fields, on the roads slowing down driving.

As I approached the intersection of Route 26 and Route 37, I saw the flickering lights of a Police car and an 18 wheeler truck in front of it. Piles of snow on the road merging with the vast expanse of whiteness around made it difficult to gauge what was wrong.

I pulled closer and saw that the road was blocked because the 18 wheeler was stuck awkwardly in the roadside ditch blocking the road. I had to take a detour, as suggested by the Police Officer who had parked his vehicle behind the badly stuck truck to alert motorists, to the county road next to a school on route 26, and join the route 37 again beyond the point where the truck had blocked the road.

It was tricky driving in drifting snow. A mile later, I encountered another pile of snow on the road. My wheels couldn't take that much of snow and my car came to a halt on the wrong side of the road. I got out of the car and started digging the snow with the showel. The wind was getting chillier and my ears started hurting worse. After what seemed ages, I could finally get inside the car and start moving again. It took more than 2 and a half hours for a drive that normally takes 1 hour 20 minutes.

Since there were not many patients, the Hospital was calm. It was eerie to walk through the floors and see rooms with empty beds, and all the other familiar smells, sounds and sights of hospital, like from the scenes of movies of apocalypse. I finished my rounds seeing all the follow up patients, and couple of admissions and sat down for the day. It was unfortunate that the Emergency Department had some robust attendance that day.

However, most of them were sent back home. By afternoon, it was sure that I will not be going home that evening. I thanked my wife's presence of mind, she had packed street into the country, vast plains and my bag with 2 sets of changing clothes, and some food, too. I called and told her that I wouldn't be returning for 2 nights.

It was indeed boring to sit without any work. I reviewed all articles in web, wrote some replies and comments, and ate food. By the time I felt it is enough, I realized that I had finished the big bag of potato chips, munched on 2 of the four Fiber One bars my wife had packed, and almost finished the secret stash of salted cashews. Worse still, I had not eaten any of the fruits! I consoled myself promising to work out longer once I am back home.

My colleague from Andhra Pradesh Shriram, who is big fan of AAP, the new Hope for India, was in the Hospital, too. Like any other argumentative Indians, we got into the discussion of India's politics. It soon got sour because I jovially told him Aravind Kejriwal looks like Sathyam's (infamous) Ramalingaraju. He said "Look, my dear friend, if you said this loud, or wrote it in any of your compulsive write ups you can rest assured that you are going to earn a lot of enemies" and left with a bitter look on his face. I started feeling bad for him. I shouldn't have told him so.

I switched on the TV in Doctors' office. It was showing the weather report periodically with same pictures and video clippings with reporters clad in layers of cloths smiling with difficulty for the viewers. There were reports of power outages, fires, and Highway accidents. I remembered one of the nurses talking about a house that caught fire 3 or 4 streets away from the Hospital. It must have been scary.

The Hospital provided rooms for us on one of the quiet floors. It was funny to sleep in those rooms where usually patients sleep. The staff were very courteous, and helpful. I called my wife and thanked her for packing all that food. I could sense her smiling.

The next day it didn't snow. But the roads were still snow filled and there was no let up. I noticed that my right ear was hurting constantly. Shriram, who lived close by and thus had gone back home, was back in the Hospital. I asked him to have a look at my ear and he examined my ear without any sign of animosity from yesterday. He told me that it is probably mild frost bite, which should go away.

Fortunately there wasn't any raw area. Since the roads were still not good for driving another 50 odd miles, I decided to stay back in the Hospital. It was once again the same feeling, of sleeping on the bed where we usually don't imagine ourselves!

I was called at 6:30 in the morning by my wife, who informed me that there was an emergency at home. The water supply pipes broke due to freezing of water in them and it had flooded our groundfloor apartment's bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. She said the landlord's team was there to fix the broken pipes and they had set up huge fans and dehumidifiers in the house, which made the house noisy and smelly. She asked in a very jovial mood, whether there is a room for her, too, in the Hospital. Wednesday started with a crack of whip which was not heard by any one, but still so loud we couldn't ignore. All those patients, particularly the elderly, who were held back because of the bad weather started pouring in through the doors of the Hospital. Our census increased so much and we were gasping by the middle of the day, but the flow didn't seem to stop at all!

I had this special patient on this Wednesday. He is a young man who had lost job of selling plant and lawn fertilizer. The reason: he was simply unable to keep working due to progressive weakness which due to fungal pharyngitis. He was unable to get it treated because the outpatient Antifungal antibiotics would have cost hundreds of dollars, which he didn't have. He had lost his insurance along with his job.

The infection had lingered on for years and he was unable to treat it. It was possible, however, to admit him and get him started on treatment with Intravenous Antifungal antibiotics.

I started wondering how many more such patients could be out there in the community. It reminded me of reading about this young man in California, who didn't have insurance, had no place to live, thus living out of his car, since his parents were dead. He was attending college, with a hope that he will start earning soon, and he was diagnosed of Diabetes. He needed insulin for sure, since he can never be treated with pills. He couldn't cut on his books or fees. He couldn't cut much on his food bills. He had to make do with old clothes, and cutting down on stationeries to save some money for his insulin. I really don't know what happened to him later. The President thinks that his magic wand of Affordable Healthcare Act is going to solve all of this kind of problems. I really hope it does.

At last, I finished 3 shifts of my work with staying 2 nights in the Hospital! My ear was feeling better, and the dead skin was peeling. I couldn't wait to get back home. I saw that the Interstate was cleared for traffic on TV. I decided to take to the safety in numbers on the interstate than travel the SR 37.

I reached home at 11 pm, to a house that was turned upside down due to flooding. Five big fans were roaring inside the house with the carpet slit open in the corners to allow free flow of air. It was interesting, though, to sleep in the dry guest bedroom on the floor with a thick quilt underneath. I was still happy I was back home to my family. I don't know when I slept, hoping it wouldn't snow tomorrow.

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