Backup generators fail at SJ hospital during blackouts, leaving workers scrambling for hours

Amanda del Castillo Image
Thursday, September 8, 2022
Backup generators fail at SJ hospital during blackouts
Parts of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center hospital went without power for almost four hours, leaving patients and health care workers in the dark.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Parts of a major South Bay hospital went without power for close to four hours on Tuesday. The outage left patients, healthcare workers and doctors in the dark.

During the PG&E outage, backup generators failed at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (SCVMC) in San Jose, impacting several buildings.

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This included the K building, which was described by hospital surgeon Dr. Tiffany Chao as the center of all things emergency.

She detailed the emergency room is on the first floor, which includes all the trauma that comes in. A lot of the surgical patients are in the surgical and trauma ICU on the second floor, she said.

There are additional patients on the fourth floor, with the third floor being care for women, children, and newborn babies.

"It's an important building," Dr. Chao told ABC7 News.

Following an evening operation on Tuesday, she was alerted about the power being completely out at the K building.

"As soon as I walked over to the ICUs, it was pitch black. Everyone just had their iPhones out as little flashlights to try to check on people," she said. "Normally ICUs are full of, you know, just like beeping sounds and like monitor sounds - just like a lot of sounds like that. And it was just silent."

Silence signaled something was very wrong.

On Wednesday, SCVMC officials released details about impacted operations. The emergency department had to close to stroke, heart attack, trauma, and ambulance arrivals. Seven patients had to be transferred to other facilities. Another nine had to be moved to different parts of the hospital.

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Dr. Chao described healthcare workers immediately jumping into action, all very familiar with working under pressure.

"Everyone came in. We had eight trauma surgeons - which is basically our whole department - in the hospital, in the pitch black, in the ICU, just trying to figure out how to help," she said.

Dr. Chao detailed the time crunch she and others were faced with, needing to transport patients.

She said the outage meant, "Our patients that are in the Surgical ICU and the Trauma ICU have zero lights, zero electricity. Patients on ventilators are on the ventilators running on batteries that only last about 30 minutes. Patients who have drips running for medicine, those will only last about an hour."

"So, we have about 30 minutes to evacuate the entire ICU to another part of the hospital before we're going to have to start ventilating patients by hand," she continued. "Meaning someone would have to stay at the bedside, doing the ventilation and the breathing for the patients."

In response, hospital officials released the following statement:

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"Emergency planning for Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, and all hospitals, takes place for situations like these. Our emergency plans went into place immediately and patient safety was never compromised. At no time were patients put into life threatening situations."

SCVMC said they were informed a PG&E substation failure was the cause of the initial outage.

"At about 6:30 p.m. last night, a PG&E outage caused the loss of power at SCVMC and O'Connor Hospital," the release detailed.

It went on to read, "The hospitals' backup generators came online immediately and remained functional at O'Connor and in most of SCVMC. However, backup generators failed for a few SCVMC buildings approximately two hours after the initial PG&E outage."

SCVMC said the generators came back online at around 12:30 a.m. with PG&E power restored at both SCVMC and O'Connor at approximately 1:40 a.m.

On Wednesday, ABC7 News asked if the backup generators which failed the night before, were replaced. What steps to address generators maintenance has the hospital taken to prevent another failure, and for specific details about the generators in use. Including a question about how long they've been in use and the last time they were serviced.

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The hospital didn't provide answers beyond their initial release.

PG&E said at the time of the outage, more than 30,000 customers were without power in the South Bay. San Jose reached a record temperature of 109 degrees on Tuesday.

Dr. Chao credited hospital staff for the team effort it took to maintain critical care.

"The nurses, the Respiratory Care therapists, the doctors, of course," she said. "Even the patients were pretty flexible about getting moved to a whole new location. So, it was one of those moments that everyone really comes together."

Dr. Chao said this isn't the first power outage she's worked through.

"I went to medical school at Mount Sinai in New York City," Dr. Chao shared. "And we actually had a blackout in New York City that at the time affected the hospital. And I was a first or second year medical student and it was the same situation, just all hands on deck, do whatever it takes."

She described having worked in developing countries, "Where often, electricity goes out. So I've operated by light of an iPhone before. So, it was eerily familiar."

Adding, "I think as physicians and also as trauma surgeons especially, we often run into kind of like all-hands-on-deck issues. When I was a resident in Boston, I was there during the Boston Marathon bombing, which was another situation where everyone just comes together."

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About the team of health workers that mobilized to respond on Tuesday, she said, "You do whatever needs to be done. Everyone's helping you fill roles you never thought you would fill, and just as long as everyone is pitching in, I think people are able to really pull off very heroic feats."

PG&E told ABC7 News in part:

"Although hospitals are required under state law to have backup generators for when emergencies occur and backup generation activated at SCVMC as soon as power was interrupted, we quickly moved crews to support power restoration to the hospital and allocated extra resources and staff to get SCVMC back on the grid as quickly as possible.

We know how much our customers rely on electric service and recognize that critical facilities such as hospitals require additional assistance to stay powered because they are essential to public safety. We remain committed to providing safe and reliable power to SCVMC and appreciate the efforts of our crews who prioritized the hospital's restoration while dealing with a historic heat event that blanketed the West and overwhelmed the power grid."

On Wednesday, SCVMC said some elective procedures scheduled for the day were canceled over uncertainty about how long the PG&E power outage would last. There was no significant impact to the hospital's blood bank or blood supply.

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