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Sandy: The Day Before the Night

by Bernadette Sheridan, MD, family medicine

New Yorkers have earned a reputation for grit. We have survived terrorist attacks and we have foiled terrorist attacks. We’ve endured periodic crime waves, economic peril and shifting weather patterns. This is the city that never sleeps. Almost nothing can dim our lights. And with that mentality, many of us believed that despite the warnings of fallible meteorologists and elected officials, Sandy, like any previous trouble, would pass. And pass she did.

As a family physician with a very busy practice in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, I know that a person reacts to stress based on how they perceive a situation when compared to their past experiences. Physicians are usually practical, focused folk not prone to overreaction. We’ve been conditioned to deal with stress.

Compared to running my medical practice, Sandy was simply not a priority. I had other fish to fry. Nevertheless, the loud, repeated warnings of the mayor, the call-out to the first responders and the disaster preparedness initiatives at surrounding hospitals did finally catch my attention. My office is located a bit inland, but my home is 20 miles away, across the Verrazano Bridge, on Staten Island. From a bedroom window less than 1,000 feet from the Atlantic Ocean, I can see the lights of Sandy Hook, N.J. in one direction and Coney Island in the other. I’ve lived here 30 years, in which time we’ve bested a vicious Nor’easter in 1992, a 30-inch deep blanket of snow that paralyzed the island, various punishing rainstorms, hailstorms and the odd tornado.

With Sandy approaching, the neighborhood stacked sandbags and taped up windows, but most of us ignored the warnings to evacuate. We gathered up batteries, flashlights, water, and snacks, and called ourselves “prepared.” In retrospect, no amount of preparation would have readied our community for what came up the coast at us.  

But who could know? The morning of October 29th was beautiful. Despite being the anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash (known as “Black Tuesday”), the day was no more catastrophic than an overcast sky.

Later in the afternoon, a light drizzle fell. 

By 4 p.m., the sky turned dark. I sat down and switched on my computer to click through my ever-growing task list. I thought about how much I liked working from home, sipping my tea, signing orders, refilling prescriptions and reading reports. My cell phone was connected, electricity flowed and the Internet was up. I was on a cloud-based EHR and everything was working perfectly. I hunkered down for a “working staycation,” oblivious to the fact that trouble—real trouble—was coming fast.

About 7 p.m., a howling wind whipped up and rain lashed the houses of the neighborhood. Ever the curious observer, I went upstairs and peered through the taped-over picture window. A field across the street was beginning to fill with water but the sea wall was still quite intact. “Not so bad,” I said to myself. “This is just another Irene. This, too, shall pass."

At 9 p.m., I turned on the TV and felt my psychological cushion begin to slip as I watched Lower Manhattan flood. Water topped the wheels of the car parked across the street. Not too much later, the lights flickered. I plugged in my cell phone to charge it up and call my children, to reassure them that I was not breaking with reality for staying put.  

Water then drowned the fire hydrant out front and was climbing over the wheels of my car.

Across the street, I could see the water now lapping over the hood of my neighbor’s car. Very soon, I could hear Sandy pushing her way into my house…

Dr. Sheridan runs Grace Family Medical Practice in Brooklyn. She's a native New Yorker and an athenahealth client.

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