You won’t need those boots. We’re only going to get a few flurries.
So off we drove just after dawn that Monday morning to work at the hospital where she and I were employed as nurses on the Burn Unit. Our first jobs as graduate nurses, we were very young and never tardy. I didn’t return to the house like I’d wanted to, to retrieve my boots in case of the remote possibility of an inch or so of snowfall. I listened to Maureen, and away we sped in her Gold Duster toward the hospital to begin the day.
We arrived at work and started the morning like any other.
By around ten a.m. it began to snow. This was no big deal, the forecast had called for a few flurries.
By eleven thirty, we knew it was going to be more than flurries and more than a few.
At noontime it was evident that this weather was something to be taken more seriously and I wished I’d made the trip back into the house and gotten my snowboots, tardy or not. The snow was falling at a rate previously unseen by any of us young nurses and the wind had picked up so that it blew the half dollar sized flakes horizontally against the building, drifting into piles which reached for the sky. From our seventh floor perch with windows galore, we could see the winter storm in all its fury. Pat was our self designated lookout and breaking news reporter. She gave us minute by minute live updates; mildly annoying was her manner, in that every one of us could and did look out those windows every time we lifted our heads from our work. This was a harbinger to the multitudes of annoyances and challenges we and so many others would face in the coming hours and days.
The storm was raging by one p.m. and it was clear to everyone that some of us weren’t going to be relieved at the end of our shift. Travel was impossible for the nurses who covered second shift. Interstate Rt. 95 only a block away, had been clearly visible earlier in the day. We watched it morph from a white haze into a white wall of drifts throughout the morning and finally disappear altogether as travelers became buried in their tracks, unable to plow through the mounting snow. The vehicles backed up for miles stranding unprepared drivers and passengers. Many of them running out of gas, risking hypothermia, dehydration, hunger, and possible death; they jumped ship, their only chance for survival.
The local news stations had gotten a handle on matters and spread the word, prompting employers from all over the city and surrounding areas to shut down operations early, thereby releasing thousands of employees onto the roadways resulting in chaos on the roads.
My snow boots were the least of anyone’s problems and by far the least of anyone’s solution.
The hospital administration had decided to discharge any patients who could possibly survive without skilled care at home. We emptied the beds. Any one who wasn’t acutely ill was sent home.
We nurses continued to care for our patients, the acutely ill that remained in house. On the Burn Unit there aren’t any who don’t need continuous care. We and they marveled at the power of Mother Nature.
We took our dinner breaks early, in shifts. This required that we pass through the first floor lobby to reach the cafeteria. I was shocked upon laying eyes on the multitudes of strangers who’d wandered in off the streets to take refuge from the storm. They sat on the chairs. They lined the floors. They slept everywhere. They wandered the halls. They dropped coins into vending machines. There were men, women, children, old, middle, young, healthy, sick, crippled. Every walk of life. These were the unexpected visitors, come in from the storm. We were the unexpected visitors, staying in from the storm. But as what was now being called a blizzard raged outdside our doors, something was missing; winter coats, gloves, hats mittens, boots, food, luggage, toiletries. Our unexpected visitors hadn’t packed their bags and neither had we nurses.
The hospital at that time was the single biggest employer in the state. We were operating with a skeleton staff. We were to sleep in shifts. I was put up to sleep on a stretcher in a remote area of the campus, along with a couple of other nurses which was fine with me. I felt lucky enough to be out of that weather. We, of course, found humor in just about any place we could and lost more sleep than was necessary that first night, with adolescent sleepover like joviality. Subsequent nights found us profoundly more somnolent.
The hospital cafeteria would eventually run so low on food and staff to prepare it that they had to limit their offerings.
There were no cell phones. I communicated with my family once or twice before they lost electricity. After that it was six days and five nights that I worked and slept at the hospital before finding relief coverage and then finally finding someone with a four wheel drive vehicle to brave the still snowclogged roadways, drive the twenty miles and rescue me.
That’s six days, five nights wearing the same underwear. The same white pantyhose. The same white uniform dress. The same everything without laundering. All while caring for some very sick people, carrying out some not so glorified tasks. I showered in between, yes, but returning to those walking dead clothes was miserable. My story pales in comparison to so many stories of harrowing survival that I’ve read about and perhaps you, yourself have endured.
I was fortunate. I had heat, food, water, electricity, a bed, a roof over my head, my good health, a sense of humor and some very good friends to share the experience with. I returned to the comfort of my home and continued on with my life, unscarred and unscathed. It was just one of those things that you will always remember, and hopefully, not bore too many people with the telling of.
The storm didn’t have a name. They didn’t name them back then. Hell they didn’t even predict that one.
Let’s just call it
The Unexpected Visitor,
The Blizzard of ’78.