St. Elizabeth Hospital: The Power of Prayer during a Disaster

Staff Writer
Gonzales Weekly Citizen
Team members of St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales gather in a circle to pray prior to receiving victims of the Williams Olefins explosion, which occurred on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

There's been an explosion at an area chemical plant. This is not a drill. Expect multiple victims. There are fatalities.

How many fatalities? What chemicals were involved? How many patients? What kinds of injuries? Are there chemical burns? We don't know.

The hospital's emergency preparedness plan is activated. Team members swing into action. Tents are set up to receive and triage multiple victims. A decontamination unit is erected to remove chemicals from victims and to prevent the emergency department from being contaminated. Emergency supplies are moved closer to the emergency department and triage area. Supplies are mobilized from Central Supply while nurses and emergency room technicians gather what may be needed to treat unknown injuries and possible burns. Respiratory Therapists gather portable oxygen and other equipment for patients whose respiratory systems may be compromised. Extra personnel are called in… doctors, nurses, ancillary staff, and security personnel. Non-clinical team members from housekeeping, accounting, human resources, admissions, and more arrive. "What can we do to help?"

It's now 9 a.m. A little more is known. The accident occurred at the Williams Olefins Plant located a little over eight miles from the hospital; 600 employees and contractors were working on the site at the time of the accident. How many were directly affected is unknown. It's already well above 90 degrees with high humidity, but dozens of clinical and non-clinical team members are waiting, donned in protective clothing. It's been less than 30 minutes, and the team members of St. Elizabeth Hospital are prepared for a mass influx of victims. In the stifling heat outside the ambulance entrance, beads of sweat drop from their brows. Still no patients, but it is said they are on their way.

While the staff waits, numerous calls are coming in. Families of workers at the plant are frantic. "Is my husband, wife, daughter, son, father, mother at your hospital?" Numerous calls are coming in. ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News. "How many patients have you seen? What types of injuries are there? What condition are they in?"

9:30 a.m. Still no patients. "Let's pray," offers a team member from Admissions. Doctors, nurses, technicians, lab, respiratory, and x-ray personnel, folks from infection prevention, plant operations, and security gather in a circle. They join hands. "Dear Lord, let there be minimal injuries, help us to be prepared, be with us and guide us as we receive these patients, keep the families of the victims in the palm of your hand…"

Two stories above, another team member in the medical office building behind the emergency room, feels that he should turn around to look out the window. What's going on? No ambulances, buses, or patients, just his fellow team members gathering in a circle to pray. He snaps a picture with his cell phone.

It's now 10:30 a.m. Finally, an ambulance arrives, then another. Three victims; one has minor burns, the others, minor lacerations and bruises. Other patients with more serious conditions arrive at Our Lady of the Lake, our sister hospital 20 miles away in Baton Rouge; those seriously burned are taken to a burn unit at another Baton Rouge hospital.

2:30 p.m., St. Elizabeth Hospital has received the bulk of the accident victims – 45. Another 28 are treated in Baton Rouge. One fatality, several in critical condition, others in fair to good condition.

The team member who snapped the picture of the prayer circle sends the photo to Robert Burgess, the hospital's CEO, and a few other team members. "What an awesome picture!" One of the team members places it on her Facebook page. Moments later it's picked up by a local online newspaper, then by the local NBC affiliate. By 9:00 p.m., it's all over the country! Thousands of comments are made.

People are pleasantly surprised.

"What a beautiful picture, bowing heads and asking the Lord's guidance for the victims."

"Beautiful tribute to so many people that were hurt today."

People are touched.

"It is such a blessing to see the staff of doctors, nurses, administration and other important people that work at the hospital reach out as one to take care of the wounded… It's not the money; it's the joy of helping others."

"So spiritual, supportive, and surreal. This is true team work."

People are comforted.

"It is comforting to know that we have a praying hospital in our community."

"My eyes wailed (sic) up with tears of joy….thank you for restoring my faith in mankind."

A total of 77 men and women were injured during the explosion. To date there were two deaths and two others remain in area hospitals. Questions raised are just beginning to be answered. Those affected are still burdened with physical and emotional scars. Healing will take time. The prayer that team members of St. Elizabeth Hospital began in that circle continues.

"There's a canvas print inside St. Elizabeth Hospital with a quote from Mother Teresa," said Jon Hirsch, Director of Marketing for the Hospital. "It says, 'The miracle is not that we do this work but that we are happy to do it.' I think that aptly describes this prayer circle. This is not something out of the ordinary for our team members. This is who St. Elizabeth Hospital and the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System are," he said.

"Regardless of their normal roles, our team came together as they should, to do what we are called to do… 'to serve those most in need,' added Burgess. "We are honored and privileged to serve the people of Louisiana, especially in trying situations such as these. This is why we are here and why we do what we do," he said.

At the convent in Baton Rouge, some of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, the sponsors of the health system, gather around the table to share a meal. They contemplate the events of the day and the pray circle. They comment that they are proud of St. Elizabeth Hospital's team members for carrying forth their mission to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ. They realize that the actions of St. Elizabeth's team members are reflective of what the more than 10,000 team members of the health system do every day.

About St. Elizabeth Hospital

St. Elizabeth Hospital is a 78-bed acute care facility located in Gonzales, Louisiana. The hospital is part of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System. In addition to St. Elizabeth, the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System also includes Franciscan Health and Wellness Services, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe and the Senior Services Division.

St. Elizabeth Hospital has twice been recognized as the Hospital of the Year by the Louisiana Nurses Foundation, and has twice been named to the 100 Best Places to Work in Healthcare® by Modern Healthcare Magazine, along with numerous other awards for quality. The hospital continually strives to live out its mission to serve those most in need by providing the highest quality healthcare delivered in a compassionate manner.

About the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System

The Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System is a Louisiana not-for-profit corporation serving as the parent for the healthcare ministry, which provides a full array of acute care and tertiary services including residential nursing care, PACE, community support and outreach. In addition to St. Elizabeth, the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System also includes Franciscan Health and Wellness Services, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe and the Senior Services Division.

Today, nearly 10,000 dedicated individuals work to advance the system's mission. The health system's combined service area covers more than 1.8 million individuals, representing more than 40 percent of Louisiana's population.