— As Hurricane Irene raged up the East Coast last weekend, knocking out power to more than 6.7 million residents, some sick people whose lives depend on home oxygen machines realized they’d cut their supply too close.
Crews working for suppliers of oxygen concentrators, ventilators and other durable medical equipment said they scrambled through the storm, racing through wind, rain and flying tree branches to reach hundreds of patients in need of air.
In some cases, even backup oxygen tanks started to run low, said Joe Candiano, operations supervisor for Homecare Concepts Inc. in Farmdale, N.Y.
“There were a few patients who made it to where they were saying ‘I’m not going to have oxygen within 15 minutes,'” said Candiano.
Candiano estimates his crew alone fielded more than 100 calls for assistance Friday through Sunday among their more than 1,200 customers. In Havre de Grace, Md., teams working for Home MediService responded to 58 calls in one day during the hurricane, about the volume they’d normally do in a week.
"Any time an oxygen-dependent patient is out, that's serious," Richardson said.
The reactions of patients in such situations can range wildly, he added.
“It’s all over the place," he said. "Sometimes you get a relative and they’re calm, cool and collected. Other times, people are just freaking out.”
In New York, Con Edison made calls to some 4,329 residents listed on the agency’s Life Sustaining Equipment list between Aug. 25 and Aug. 30, said spokesman Alfonso Quiroz. Those are patients who choose to alert utility companies ahead of time to their medical equipment needs. Of those, only 138 lost power during the storm. Nearly all were able to be reached, a few dozen were referred to emergency crews for contact.
As growing numbers of Americans depend on home medical equipment, power outages during disasters are posing a bigger problem, said Michael Reinemer, a spokesman for the American Association for Homecare. A conservative estimate suggests that between four million and five million people rely on home equipment that uses electricity, he said.
At least 1.45 million Medicare patients alone use home oxygen, often to treat lung diseases and chronic heart failure, according to 2009 figures.
Others need ventilators to provide mechanical breathing or nebulizers to deliver inhaled medication. Without electricity to power the machines, the patients can risk severe illness and, of course, death.
Before Hurricane Irene struck, many medically fragile patients had adequate warning and enough time to stock up on manually operated equipment or to evacuate to shelters or hospitals with a steady supply of power.
State emergency centers in New York, North Carolina and Vermont reported few problems with residents dependent on home medical machines, mostly because those patients had been warned well in advance to make other arrangements, spokespeople said.
'I'm always prepared'
“I had enough because I’m always prepared,” said Linda Martin, 64, of Long Island, N.Y., whose 68-year-old husband, Emil Martin, relies on oxygen to treat his pulmonary fibrosis.
“In all actuality, people should not wait until the day before the storm to prepare,” she said.
Still, even those who made advance plans may be feeling the effects of the hurricane’s aftermath. Lingering power loss continued to affect at least 1.1 million people along the East Coast Thursday mornning, down from the peak of nearly 7 million at the height of the storm, according to the federal Department of Energy.
Heading into five days without power, Dave Crutchfield, 68, of Ellicott City, Md., has gotten used to daily visits from the home medical care supplier who brings oxygen to Crutchfield’s 56-year-old wife, Jean. For the past three years, she has required constant oxygen to treat her pulmonary hypertension.
“My wife happens to be on a high usage of oxygen,” said Crutchfield, who figures she’ll go through a backup canister designed to last 24 hours in 16 hours or less.
Without the backup supply, Crutchfield would have evacuated his wife to a local hospital 10 miles down the road.
With Hurricane Irene, that wasn’t necessary, he said. But who knows about the next hurricane?
“It was a bad enough storm that 800,000 people in Maryland were left without power,” he said.
For him, that was plenty.