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A Sunday morning TV news report about flood waters leaking into Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt sent the first surge of alarm through Charles Coffey, Ph.D. The chief clinical physicist in Radiotherapy at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center wondered about the safety of the Radiation Oncology center in the basement of the Preston Research Building. Cancer patients depend on the exquisite precision of the multimillion dollar machines in Radiation Oncology to help treat their cancer. Were those machines at risk?
Within two hours, a phone call from Vanderbilt’s Emergency Command Center answered that question—swirling flood waters were invading the Radiation Oncology center. Coffey immediately called Bob Taylor, one of VICC’s linear accelerator engineers, and the two drove through Nashville’s flooded
landscape to the Cancer Center. Racing down a darkened stairwell (by now only emergency power was available) they found water already nearing the bottom step.
“We knew it was bad. It was a matter of how bad it would be,” said Coffey.
Splashing into flood waters now more than ankle-deep, the pair waded toward the most critical area, the linear accelerator rooms.
All of the electronic cables between the control rooms and the linear accelerators lie in protective concrete troughs under the floors, troughs now filled with dark water. The cables and connectors were ruined.
But crucial components on the linear accelerators were mostly above the water line. Computers in the console area were up on racks, still an inch or so above the rising flood water.
“We started going room to room, pulling computer cables, unplugging equipment,” explained Coffey. “All of the power cords were on the floor under water. There were personal computers at floor level, many ruined.”
Coffey and Taylor were still handling electrical cords when, without warning, the power came back on. Fortunately, they didn’t receive an electrical shock— another disaster averted.
In between telephone consultations with Radiation Oncology Interim Chairman Arnold Malcolm, M.D., stranded behind flood waters at his home, Coffey and Taylor managed to reach Adrian Newson, director of Radiation Oncology Programs. Within a couple of hours Newson and more than a half dozen other staff members, and spouses, arrived to help.
“We were trying to save patient records, along with the masks, blocks and other equipment used to immobilize patients during radiation treatment,” said Newson. “Those masks are custom designed for each patient and without them patients might have to interrupt their treatment until new accessories could be manufactured.”
By 2 p.m. the water started receding, but “the damage was done,” explained Coffey. Now it was a salvage operation.
And the clock was already ticking on another issue—maintaining patient treatment schedules. Cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy often need to receive treatment on a rigorous schedule for optimal results. This was Sunday. Monday morning some of those patients would likely try to brave flooded streets to come in for treatment.
“Our primary focus is patient care and we needed to reach out to those patients,” said Newson. “We realized the treatment machines actually contain information about which patients are undergoing treatment, along with records, including phone numbers. We started calling patients and reached nearly all of them to tell them not to come in.”
Within 48 hours, Newson and Karen Munyon, clinic manager for VICC’s other radiation oncology centers—VICC at Franklin and Gateway, in Clarksville—managed to redirect patients to those two facilities. They arranged shuttle service for patients needing transportation to Clarksville. Staff members also agreed to work extended hours at the satellite centers, treating patients from 6 a.m. until nearly midnight, to maintain treatment schedules.
Charles Coffey just shakes his head when remembering the Great Nashville Flood. “Never have I personally experienced something this damaging.”