THE DAMAGE TO the room was catastrophic. The ceiling was gone. “Why couldn't this have happened on the day shift?” we grumbled. The emergency in our hospice facility had started soon after the evening-shift nurses gave report and predicted we'd have a quiet night. Little did they know.
That night shift, I was assigned to Bernice, 93, who never wanted to be left alone. She was notorious for her loud, nonstop prayers—especially The Lord's Prayer. “I'm a scaredy cat,” she explained. Bernice loved cats and had a picture of her multicolored long-haired cat Taffy on her dresser; she also clung to a stuffed version. “Please don't leave me alone!” she'd plead, and off she'd go: “Our Father who art in heaven...” She often latched on to my hand and wouldn't let go. We scheduled volunteers to sit with her.
Sound the alarm
At 0130 with Bernice asleep, my fellow RN Jerry, an unlicensed assistive personnel (UAP), and I were jolted to our feet by what sounded like a bed alarm on steroids. We saw the two hallway doors close automatically. Fire alarm! We plunged through the doors searching for smoke and fire. Our first thought was that someone was smoking in a room. We searched the patient rooms, kitchen, laundry room, bathrooms, and all open areas. Nothing. Following our facility's protocol, I called the fire department, administrator on duty, and our team director.
The alarm continued to blare, but under our policy only the fire department could silence it. Two ambulatory patients came out into the hallway. We reassured them that everything was fine. Since we hadn't yet discovered what made the alarm go off, we continued to look in patient rooms to make sure they were safe and we hadn't missed anything. We all followed Jerry down my hallway and were the first to spot the trouble in Bernice's room. She was getting a gentle shower from the ceiling. The fire sprinkler system had been activated in her room.
We assisted Bernice into a wheelchair and took her to the nursing station. Her gown was soaked. “I'm scared. Don't leave me. I'm cold,” she told us. I helped Bernice change out of her wet clothes and then covered her with two blankets from the warmer. Once again, I dialed the on-call administrator, who told us the maintenance officer was on his way; he'd already been notified about the breach in the sprinkler system.
I stood in the doorway of Bernice's room and now watched a gusher of water pouring from the ceiling into the room. Later we'd learn that a corroded water pipe had burst and caused the fire sprinkler to malfunction. Jerry had attempted to contain the flow of water by placing large garbage cans and tubs from the utility room in strategic areas, but now water was ankle-deep in the room. We put down blankets and sheets to soak up the water. I continued to monitor the patients in their rooms. The alarm was relentless.
The firemen were in the building by now but couldn't find the switch to shut off the alarm. Fortunately, the maintenance officer arrived shortly thereafter, silenced the alarm, and found the water shutoff valve.
The calm after the storm
The UAP and I escorted Bernice to her new room and settled her into bed. She kept looking up at the dome light in the ceiling. “There might be another thunderstorm,” she warned. She grasped our hands. “Our Father who art in heaven...” she recited.
I left the room to check on other patients. When I returned, I found our maintenance officer in Bernice's clutches. I gave her medication that allowed her to sleep through the noise of the wet/dry vacuum cleaner crew that came to remove the water.
Jerry changed into dry clothes. His actions had prevented much of the flood from damaging more rooms. Exhausted, we sat in front of our computers again. “Had we met the challenge of the night?” we asked ourselves. We knew where the fire extinguishers were. We'd remembered the fire acronym R.A.C.E. (Rescue-Alarm-Contain-Extinguish). We'd rescued Bernice; the firemen had arrived within minutes; Jerry had contained the gusher; and the flow of water had been staunched. We'd followed protocol for a fire when it was really a flood.
In report, we stated that if Bernice mentioned a rainstorm in her room, she wasn't hallucinating. Like Bernice, we'd be talking about the flood of 2016 in Room 12 for a long time.