IOWA DERECHO 2020

For those with medical needs, storm that hit Cedar Rapids turns life-threatening

CEDAR RAPIDS — For people reliant on medical devices or who need to keep medicine cold, an extended power outage like this week’s can be life threatening.

Garret Frey is quadriplegic and relies on a ventilator to breath. When the storm hit and the power went out Monday at his northwest Cedar Rapids home, an immediate concern was making sure he would be able to recharge his wheelchair and the ventilator attached to it.

A friend brought him a generator that night, but once the gas ran out he worried about getting more, with most stations in town closed.

Frey, who serves on the city’s ADA Advisory Committee, has been paralyzed since a motorcycle crash at age 4. He lives with his mother and brother, and they ended up leaving Cedar Rapids to stay with his aunt and uncle in Missouri.

“I know I’m not the only quadriplegic in Cedar Rapids and I’ve been dealing with this a long time,” he said. “I’ve been paralyzed for 33 years, I’ve been through other things, so I know how to adapt, what to do in case of emergencies.”

He said he was lucky to have people to help, but worries about others with fewer resources.

Some people ended up being admitted to hospitals to access power.

UnityPoint Home Medical Equipment and St. Luke’s have been assisting residents who are oxygen dependent and do not have electricity. There were more than 20 people being housed Wednesday within the hospital for oxygen.

Dr. Timothy Quinn, director of clinical operations at Mercy Medical Center, said Mercy has been receiving calls from oxygen dependent patients who need help.

WHERE TO CHARGE: Here are the charging stations in Cedar Rapids, Linn County

“We have been trying to connect those people with health care agencies and other supply agencies to help supply their oxygen,” he said.

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Linn County Emergency Management has opened seven charging stations for medical devices, but none were in Cedar Rapids.

However, three medical devices charging stations will be open starting Friday morning in Cedar Rapids, in the parking lots of the Downtown Public Library, the Twin Pines Golf Course and the Northwest Recreation Center. Public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said in an email that city transit services are expected to resume Monday, and that people can also call the United Way help line at 2-1-1.

On Thursday, the Red Cross worked with Linn County Emergency Management to expand the charging station in Palo into a 24-hour shelter, said Pami Erickson, executive director of the Eastern Iowa Chapter of the Red Cross. She said nurses would be staffing it, and anyone was welcome. She said people who had been admitted to area hospitals to access oxygen would be transferred there.

With cell service, internet and power spotty or absent, coordinating the efforts to find a space that had power and that was big enough to allow for social distancing due to the pandemic was tricky, she said.

That left residents to figure out plans on their own in the meantime.

When the storm hit Monday, Cathy Hafsi was watching her grandson and his friend at her daughter’s house. As the sirens went off, she sent them to the basement, but couldn’t go herself.

Hafsi has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, so she stayed in the living room.

“I couldn’t see 2 feet past the window,” she said. “It was pretty scary.”

But when the storm passed and she drove home to her southeast side Cedar Rapids house, she realized that scare was just the beginning.

Hafsi lives with another woman with cerebral palsy, Cherie Clark, and they both use power wheelchairs. Without electricity, their mobility was gone. Meanwhile, a tree was sticking through their roof. And once cell service failed, she worried what she would do if Clark fell.

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She ended up finding a generator, and a friend got her gas — but only enough to power one of the two wheelchairs. She planned to look for more gas over the coming days, and another friend removed the tree limb from the roof. Hafsi said she is lucky to have a network of people to rely on, but more needs to be done to help those who don’t have that help.

“A lot of people with disabilities live by themselves and have damaged apartments or homes, and its just not a good situation,” she said.

Jeff McQuiston said he hasn’t slept well since the storm because he hasn’t been able to plug in his CPAP machine, which helps with his sleep apnea.

“When they did the test, my oxygen level went down to 52 percent. I’m supposed to use it every night,” he said. “I’m not sleeping worth a darn — I’ve been wearing this thing for like 15 years.”

Parents like Jade and Becca Miner and Scott and Jenny Lester immediately started worrying about the insulin for their children, who have Type 1 diabetes.

The lifesaving medicine must be kept refrigerated before it is opened. When cell reception failed, they also stopped getting updates from the glucose monitors that send alerts to their phones. Both couples ended up sending their kids with one parent to stay with family out of the area, while the other parent stayed behind to coordinate cleanup and damage assessment of their homes.

“Diabetes is already pretty challenging to begin with, even with the best technology out there,” Scott Lester said. “There’s the task of making sure everything’s charged, and also with insulin it was one of the things we panicked about right away.”

Timeka Tillman was at her daughter’s house when the storm hit. When she got home to her northwest Cedar Rapids house, it took five hours to get in because a tree blocked her door.

“Neighbors came out with axes and knives to make a path for me to get in,” she said.

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She has COPD, asthma, diabetes and heart problems. Both her insulin and another medicine she takes for inflammation need to be refrigerated. That medicine is delivered by mail, and she was grateful her mail carrier made the effort to climb over the tree to get it to her porch Tuesday as scheduled. She left it in its insulated packaging as long as possible before opening it. About three weeks worth of insulin in her fridge went bad, meanwhile, and she spent much of the day Thursday trying to get her prescription refilled.

She couldn’t reach her pharmacy or doctor on the phone, she said, and even reaching other pharmacies didn’t help without her prescription being transferred.

All of this is on top of not getting good sleep because she couldn’t plug in her CPAP and BIPAP machines, which help her breath.

“Today, I’m very lethargic; I woke up with a headache. It’s even harder for me to breathe and do daily things like even walking to the car. Basically, without the machine I’m cutting oxygen off,” she said.

She finally drove to Dubuque to buy a generator after not being able to find one here. The local charging stations wouldn’t do her much good, she added, because her CPAP machine doesn’t have a battery.

“It’s really, really ridiculous,” she said. “It brings a person’s spirit down.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

Michaela Ramm of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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