The medical 'heroes' who help save the lives of kidney-dialysis patients when massive storms hit the US
Dialysis patients could die if they miss one treatment. But the increasing frequency of extreme weather in the US is making this risk more prevalent. Many patients who rely on dialysis have to travel to a facility to receive treatment and extreme weather can make travel difficult or even impossible
On Christmas Day 2022, while most residents in upstate New York were getting ready to enjoy the festivities, Michael Sloma was on a mercy mission to save a life.
The region was still reeling from
a once-in-a-century blizzard
that had left dozens of people dead, and Sloma was determined that a woman who needed dialysis wasn't going to join their ranks.
Sloma is the US Renal Care group vice president of operations. He is one of many untold heroes who jump into action when there are snowstorms, hurricanes or wildfires.
One in 500 Americans is on dialysis
, according to the National Kidney Foundation, and each knows it is their lifeline. The chaos of an extreme-weather event can put many of them at risk of missing their all-important treatments.
When snow and hurricane-level winds hit Buffalo, New York, for four days straight last Christmas and residents sheltered in their homes, Sloma took to the dangerous roads.
"We're used to dealing with snow and removing snow, so that really doesn't bother us," he told Insider. "But they were starting to say on the news that this was going to be a really bad storm — generational-type blizzard storm. Conditions were such that you could not see literally a foot in front of your car. We had a total of 23 people stuck inside various clinics — about half were patients, and half were staff."
Most worrying was a nursing-home resident trapped by the snow who required dialysis and needed to be evacuated as soon as possible.
"Six of us dug through the snow for three hours, creating a path that was 30 feet long by 4-to-5 feet tall to the parking lot, but that didn't reach the road. We were able to convince a nice gentleman who had some construction equipment to dig a path for us to get our vehicles into the parking lot to the main road," Sloma said.
Although the team won and the patient was transferred to Sloma's vehicle, the plan to transfer her to another nursing facility fell through due to snowblockage also.
"So, I put her into the back seat of my car, and with the nurse, we transported her to the local hospital. She's now doing great," he said.
By car, by boat, by snowplow
Fort Myers Beach, Florida, aerial view of damaged property after Hurricane Ian.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
As Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas and Louisiana in 2017, Ariel Brigham sat on the roof of her Houston home, waiting to be rescued.
She watched the water engulf her house and flood the area around her. She was trapped.
But the rising water level was not the only danger Brigham was facing. The hurricane meant that she could not get kidney dialysis for seven days.
Even after she got to the safety of a friend's house, Brigham was still in mortal danger.
"I gained 30 lbs of fluid and was very swollen. My face, hands, legs, and entire body were all super swollen. It was hard, and I was unable to sleep.
She said that she was at the point when doctors said her heart was slowing down, and she was finally admitted to hospital. However, even after that, it took me four more hours to dialyze.
Like many dialysis patients, Brigham needed treatment every three days to replace the function of normal kidneys. Dialysis patients need their blood cleared through this procedure.
Each missed session increases the risk of death by 10%.
LaVarne Burton, the president and CEO of the American Kidney Fund, told Insider: "I have known of people who skipped even one session and unfortunately passed away."
These units include meteorologists, advisors from utility firms, and patient-care personnel who meet twice daily in extreme weather to ensure patients' safety.
Mary Dittrich, the executive vice president and chief medical officer of US Renal Care, and Phil Sarnowski, the senior vice president and business-transformation partner at US Renal Care, described how the teams combat a potential weather disaster.
The disaster-response teams can be a lifeline, whether that's by driving a car driving through a storm, sailing a boat during a flood, or riding a snowplow through a blizzard.
The moment the phone rings with a notification of an imminent weather event, the teams slam a metaphorical red button. The disaster-preparedness teams move quickly to rearrange dialysis appointments and ensure patients can access care facilities, food supplies, and clinical goods.
Members of the Red Cross and the National Guard deploy, government offices receive notice, and health commissioners and fire departments remain on standby.
Sarnowski told Insider that they also have companies ready to provide water and electricity generators with just 24 hours' notice.
A snowplow driver talks to a homeowner while removing feet of snow from a residential street in Draper, Utah, on February 23, 2023.
GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images
The majority of US patients receiving renal-care treatment have their dialysis done at home. One type of dialysis is called hemodialysis and the other is peritoneal dialysis. This uses a tube placed in the abdomen.
"For peritoneal-dialysis patients, which is the majority of our home patients, we train them to do manual exchanges, meaning they can continue their treatments, even in the absence of electricity, manually connecting and disconnecting and running fluids into their stomach or their abdomen and then draining," Dittrich said.
Senior connecting peritoneal dialysis at home with a catheter
For many reasons, but largely because end-stage kidney failure often halts a person's ability to work, many dialysis patients live within a low-income bracket.
Burton stated that this can lead to financial ruin. She said that patients often have to pay around $10,000 per year for treatment.
That's why the American Kidney Fund has developed a disaster-relief program.
When a severe weather event strikes, patients can be eligible for $250. It can replace their medications, fund transportation costs, and provide temporary housing. They can get whatever they need to survive the crisis.
"Extraordinary levels" of commitment
An abandoned ambulance on a roadside after a historic blizzard pummeled Buffalo Sunday, December 25, 2022.
Photo by Malik Rainey, Washington Post via Getty Images
Dittrich stated that she is concerned by the increase in adverse weather events and emergency situations.
She stated, "I am firmly in the camp that these are due to climate change" "I am dismayed at the number of these we are seeing, and must prepare for them, while being confident in my ability to handle it. They are challenging and very difficult.
Dittrich and Sarnowski said the heroes of these stories are the staff who provide the care.
For patients that receive their treatments in clinics, they see care staff for 12 hours a week at minimum, Dittrich said, and patients and staff "become like family," hence the "extraordinary levels of commitment."
Dittrich stated that the dialysis-disaster programme has provided a blueprint for coordinated efforts among historic rivals.
"Medical companies collaborate. Dittrich stated that we accept patients from other providers, take their patients to hospital, and they take ours. They also share our supplies, generators, and water. She said that the collaborations were "validating and affirming as well as inspiring."
This is definitely true for Sloma, who organised the rescue of a dialysis patient trapped in snowy upstate New York.
He said, "All things considered and even having to shovel lots of snow, it was probably one of the most meaningful Christmas Days that I've ever experienced."