As the terrifying winds of Hurricane Laura shook a southwest Louisiana hospital last week, a group of determined nurses kept their focus on the 19 tiny babies in the neonatal intensive care unit whose lives depended on them.
The staff at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital for Women spoke on TODAY Tuesday about how, a few hours before the storm hit, they had to move the babies to another, safer building. Then, a team of one physician, two neonatal nurse practitioners, 14 nurses and three respiratory therapists rode out the frightening night in 12-hour shifts, all while assuring the parents of the infants, some only weighing a pound or two, that their children were in good hands.
“It was pretty terrifying, just the wind and the water coming through, but our focus was these babies,” nurse practitioner Krissy Morris said. “We wanted to make sure all of them were taken care of, just like we would take care of them … whether there was a storm or not. So that was our main focus, so it kind of went fast from there because we had so many babies to take care of.”
To start, hospital personnel transferred all 19 babies and their specialized equipment, weighing about 300 pounds per child, from the women’s hospital, which was threatened by the storm surge, to the main hospital across town.
“Transferring 19 babies, critical infants, even just across town is a big ordeal,” NICU director Leah Upton told Morgan Chesky on TODAY.
They accomplished the feat in about two hours as a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph and a storm surge as high as 15 feet in some areas was about to make landfall. Many of the nurses’ families, along with the parents of the babies, had already evacuated the area to safety.
“No one wants to be separated from their family during a time like this, but my four children evacuated with my husband, so I knew that they were in safe hands,” Upton said. “I just couldn’t imagine what the mothers of these babies felt during this time because their babies were here. They had to put a lot of trust in us to take care of them.”
The nurses put mattresses against the windows of the 10-story building to prevent any shattering glass from the winds from potentially hitting the babies. The building lost power and went to a back-up generator at about 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and some babies were moved into the hallways away from windows.
“You’re in the room and the windows are rattling and the building is shaking,” Upton said. “It was a little bit disturbing, frightening.”
The nurses used music to help soothe their nerves as the building shook.
“One of our nurses, Allison, had a playlist full of just like praise and worship music, and we just blared that,” Morris said. “We are all singing, it was kind of trickling down the hallways, and it just kept some calm and peace for us during this time. “
They also issued periodic updates on Facebook to keep the nervous parents of the babies informed.
“That reassurance right there, that really helped me get through the night for sure,” Tabitha Fawcett, whose 2-day-old daughter, Whitley, was in the NICU during the storm, said on TODAY.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have kept our sanity. It was rough, but because of them, we were able to really pull through.”
About 48 hours after the ordeal began, Upton said the nurses were finally able to head home.
The babies were eventually transferred to other area hospitals after the storm because the hurricane damaged the hospital’s water supply. All of the tiny infants pulled through without any issues.
“They did very well, probably better than us,” Morris said. “They slept through the whole thing. We maintained their equipment, their respiratory stuff they needed, and they did fine.”
“Besides being afraid and distressed, we didn’t go without anything, and the babies didn’t even realize there was a storm going on,” Upton said.