As the Texas Hill Country experienced widespread river flooding in mid-October, La Hacienda took extraordinary measures to maintain top levels of care for its patients.
Fed by more than six inches of rainfall on the already saturated ground, the Guadalupe River at Hunt started to rise Monday evening, October 15. It quickly topped flood stage, 10 feet at Hunt, and did not fall back below that until Wednesday morning, October 17.
In between its rise and fall, the Guadalupe peaked at 18.5 feet, the highest flood crest since October 1996.
The flooding was never a hazard to the hilltop campus, but it closed nearby highways to through traffic for about 24 hours. Most of the daytime staff, which would usually have taken over Tuesday morning, were unable to get to Hunt.
The night staff, plus day staff who live near the campus, carried on.
Helicopter to the Rescue
To solve the impasse, La Hacienda contracted with Exotic Game Management of Mountain Home to fly in doctors, nurses, counselors and members of the dining, maintenance, housekeeping and information services staffs.
From a loading zone at the Hill Country Arts Foundation in Ingram, the company’s four-seat helicopter carried 23 staff to a landing site on the La Hacienda property by the river. Four employees who had completed their shifts flew back to Ingram.
The six-mile flight took about five minutes each way, and the operation lasted 2.5 hours.
“On-campus operations continued normally, and the patients were safe, but we needed to relieve staff,” said Chief Financial Officer Lori Dittmar. “We are very thankful that Phil Johnston’s helicopter was available.”
Lori, who has been on staff since 1991, noted that only one other airlift has been necessary during that period.
“Normally, when the river rises and covers the crossings, it goes back down in a few hours,” she said. “This time it rained continuously over a large area that was already saturated by the previous week’s rainfall.”
“We wanted to make sure that we continued to provide quality patient care, so we arranged to fly in fresh staff.”
It was Medical Director Dr. James Boone’s second helicopter ride to work since he joined La Hacienda in 2004.
‘I rode a smaller helicopter in April 2004, and this trip was every bit as exciting. Our excellent pilot handled the helicopter like it was an extension of his body. It was fascinating to see the rushing river on one side and the hundreds of houses scattered through the hills, and then to sweep down into a feather-soft landing.”
Bringing in rested medical staff is key to proper treatment, said Dr. Boone. While the doctors routinely work long days– anywhere from four to eight 12-to-14-hour days in a row—they follow that with four to six days off to rest and recharge.
“There is a well-proven correlation between physician error and sleep deprivation. We all prioritize early nights when we are working to try to be at peak ability to care for our patients, especially since we see the first one at 5:45 a.m.”
Back to Normal
By Wednesday morning, October 17, the river crossings below Hunt were open, and staff schedules returned to normal.
“These are the moments of greatness that define a team and make a difference,” said Executive Director Art VanDivier of the overall effort by staff to ensure continuous effective patient care despite challenging conditions.
Facility Compliance Advisor Beth Fearing, who helped set up the operation, noted other organizations played vital roles.
“We are extremely grateful for the Hill Country Arts Foundation, which allowed us to use their site for parking and as the landing and pick-up point for the helicopter; the Hunt Volunteer Fire Department, which was on standby in case of an emergency; and Air Evac Lifeteam, which set up the landing pad in Ingram and coordinated with Kerrville Airport for refueling.”
“It took so many people to help make this a smooth operation, and we thank them all.”