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Jamaica Hospital trains for heavy hazmat duty

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A few feet away, others dressed in the head-to-toe coveralls prepared the decontamination showers, where the patient, a woman strapped to a backboard with her leg in a brace, would be cleaned of any hazardous materials on her skin.

"They did great," said the patient, Shari Koppel. "I make the best patient."

Koppel, an emergency room nurse at Jamaica Hospital, was posing as a patient last Thursday as part of a course for the center's staff on handling hazardous materials cases, said Paul Penn, of EnMagine, a hospital training firm based in California.

The three-day seminar was paid for by a grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences secured by the Service Employees International Union, which represents hospital workers, said union official Steve Schrag.

The course was designed to familiarize staff from a number of hospital departments with the process and equipment used to decontaminate patients who might pose a risk to other patients inside the hospital, said Paul Penn, the course instructor. The 30-person class, comprised of emergency room, housekeeping, building maintenance and other staff, learned about the protective gear they have to wear and how to set up and operate the portable decontamination showers, he said.

"You don't know how big the disaster could be," said John Arline Jr., an administrator at Jamaica Hospital. "You won't be able to rely on any one department to respond. We try to cross-train as many departments as possible."

The showers have three lanes to treat about 20 patients an hour, said Mark Marino, director of Jamaica Hospital's emergency management and pre-hospital care department. Two lanes are available for patients who can walk themselves, and a third contains a rolling conveyor belt so patients on backboards can be pushed through the showers with the aid of hospital staff, he said.

"It's like a car wash," Marino said.

The showers are removed when not in use and take less than five minutes to set up, Penn said.

The showers are just outside the emergency room, so patients can be brought right in once they have been decontaminated, Arline said.

"We have to protect the rest of the patients, employees and visitors already in the building," he said. "We want that person clean so they don't affect others and we can keep the hospital open. The reality is that five minutes after the disaster, someone's going to have a heart attack."

The hospital has enhanced its emergency response training and capacity since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, but the protocol has always been in place, Marino said.

"Weapons of mass destruction, the need for decontamination, that's not new," he said. "Industrial accidents need decontamination, too."

And the staff appreciated the opportunity to get hands-on experience before having to deal with real patients, said Lisa Fraumeni, assistant head nurse for the ER.

"Just to get dressed and everything is time-consuming," she said of the protective gear.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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