CANONSBURG – A natural gas explosion in a remote warehouse left more than a dozen injured with third-degree burns and broken bones. Nurses, surgeons and doctors in the Canonsburg Hospital emergency room rushed to treat the large influx of victims.
Or so was the backstory for this year’s annual drill dubbed “Operation Ka-Boom,” an exercise designed to test the limits of the hospital for different types of disasters.
The event was held Wednesday, meeting a requirement for hospitals that are part of the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that certifies and accredits more than 21,000 health-care organizations across the country,
“It’s a drill to exploit our weaknesses so we can prepare for the real event in the future,” said Gene Giraulo, the prehospital coordinator. “Especially in today’s world, anything can happen at any time. Just because we’re remote does not eliminate that possibility from us.”
Only a select few hospital managers were informed of the drill prior to its start. More than 20 volunteers participated as actors for the simulation.
Conducting drills like this one allows hospitals to analyze how prepared they are for different types of events. These can range from mass-casualty incidents to epidemic breakouts.
“It’s important for the community to know that we do this,” said Julie Ference, the manager of the hospital’s emergency department. “We have emergency plans in place that deal with something like this, which is more of a guideline for staff, because you can’t really predict what is really going to happen.”
Every department within the hospital was utilized. Once the drill began, the actors were loaded onto ambulances outside the main entrance. They were then transported to the emergency room. From there, medical staff assessed the various injuries and determined their proper treatment.
“It’s a very relevant thing for a doctor to know, especially in a small hospital like this,” said Mary Anand, a volunteer at the hospital and one of the patient actors. “My career goal is to become a physician, so this is a good experience for me to see how a hospital stays prepared for an unexpected situation.”
Makeup artists from Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program in Monessen were brought in to add visuals to the actors. They crafted burns, cuts and other injuries onto the volunteers. They even made some look like they had gone into shock or had bones sticking out of them.
The makeup allowed the nurses and doctors to use their assessment skills and triage. It also allowed for the makeup artists to practice their skills.
“I’ve never actually done mock disaster, and it sounded kind of fun,” said Delaney Messitt, a student in the program. “We’re mostly just making people (look) burnt up, kind of shocked.”
Messitt said opportunities likes these help students build their portfolios. The 16-month Savini program challenges students to find creative ways to use makeup, with the hospital patient actors being a perfect place to experiment.
Following the drill was a debriefing, where a roundtable discussion was held to address what went well and what could be improved.
While the drill is an important measure for the readiness a hospital might have, it is not the only aspect that management is looking to address.
“Everything practiced is not a drill,” Giraulo said, while stressing that unknowns will continue to exist until practiced and prepared for. “We’re stressing out as many of the systems in the hospital as we can. We need to be prepared for it.”
Doug Braunsdorf, senior public relations analyst at Allegheny Health Network, believes the drills are a vital part of providing the best possible treatment for patients.
“These are learning experiences,” Braunsdorf said. “You need to find out what you need to work on in a drill and not in the real world.”
The live-action drill is one of two preparedness exercises that the hospital holds each year. The second event consists of a group of hospital officials who meet and discuss different types of scenarios a hospital might face and how to best prepare for them.