Surviving the Storm



When Judy Paull of Hilton Head Island took a new job as interim chief nursing officer at Bay Medical Sacred Heart Hospital in Panama City, Florida, she had no idea of the dramatic events that awaited her. She started her new job Sept. 17, overseeing the hospital’s nursing care. As luck would have it, she was also the administrator on call for the week that a Category 4 hurricane would slam into the area. When predictions of a probable evacuation ahead of Hurricane Michael came in the early hours of Oct. 8, Paull knew she was in for a wild ride.

Paul, DNP, APRN-BC, NEA-BC, talked to Monthly about her experiences at her Moss Creek home over the Christmas holiday. She owns a health care consulting business and is a licensed and board-certified nurse practitioner who has previously served as the chief nursing officer in other organizations.

Two weeks after she arrived at Bay Medical, she and hospital CEO Scott Campbell began working with the facility’s leadership staff to prepare for the hurricane. Hurricane Michael intensified from a Category 2 to a Category 4 storm on Oct. 10, with 170 mph sustained winds and gusts of about 200 mph.

“I got a horrible feeling when the hurricane became a category four at 4 a.m.,” Paull said, adding that she remembers thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening.” 

By 12:30 p.m. the hurricane hit full force. Paull and the hospital staff focused on ensuring the remaining patients were safe and handling emergencies, while all about them glass was shattering and water was pouring into the building, running down the stairs and elevator shafts. Patients on higher floors were carried by nurses and staff on plastic sleds down stairwells to the next lowest floor due to roof damage. During the hurricane, every patient had a nurse with them.

“Trees and debris, even the hood of a car, blew by the windows,” Paull said. “The sound of the wind was indescribable.”

There was a point during the hurricane when she thought, “After all of my 45-year career, I’m going to die in a hurricane in a hospital.”

Luckily, one of the first things Paull had done on arrival at Bay Medical was conduct a disaster preparedness drill for a Category 3 hurricane. She believes this preparation and her background with disaster preparedness helped her make a difference for the hospital’s patients and staff during the storm.  

Ahead of the storm, Bay Medical opened a command center in the hospital. Following health care industry recommendations developed after Hurricane Katrina, members of the hospital staff were allowed to bring their families and pets to the hospital with them to take shelter from the storm. By 6 p.m. Oct. 9, there were 1,500 people and 74 pets at the hospital.

“The intense part of the storm lasted four hours,” she said. When the winds died down, she and other members of the staff ventured outside in the rain to check the damage. “We were stunned. Parts of the building were gone.”

Paull and many staff members remained in the hospital around the clock for eight days. By the end of the second day, all 231 patients were still in stable condition and were safely evacuated to other hospitals. The Bay Medical emergency room remained open throughout the hurricane.

When Paull finally returned her Florida condo, there was no power.

“National Guard soldiers were on every street corner with machine guns and lights; it looked like a war zone,” she said. “I turned around and went back to the hospital. I felt it was the safest place.”

Those who took shelter in the hospital during the storm bonded and became like family, Paull said. She helped with the hospital’s reopening Jan. 2, though it was at a reduced capacity of 75 beds. She also organized a retreat for the hospital’s 400 nurses, telling them that they pulled off a miracle and kept everyone alive.

Looking down on Panama City from the hospital’s fifth-floor window, the landscape is a sea of roofs covered in blue tarps. Debris still lines streets and many businesses have not reopened. Mexico Beach, just 30 miles to the east, sustained direct impact and was devasted.

“Three women came to me after the storm and thanked us for saving their lives,” Paull said. “They had lost their homes. I’ll never forget that.”

Paull’s interim position ended Jan. 11, but it is an experience she will never forget.

“One of the things I’ve realized is that ‘stuff’ doesn't matter,” she said. “We live in a great place on Hilton Head; it’s beautiful, but it’s at risk. This could happen here.”