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One pathologist’s disaster preparations

December 2001
William Check, PhD

One laboratorian who has gone beyond hospital preparedness is Thomas Williams, MD, medical director of Methodist Pathology Center at Methodist Hospital, Omaha, Neb.

Two years ago, before Omaha received a $600,000 federal contract to develop a bioterrorism plan, Dr. Williams was asked by Methodist executive Patricia Lenaghan, RN, who, he says, "helped spearhead a citywide disaster preparedness project," to co-chair Omaha's Laboratory/Infection Control/Public Health Subcommittee. Dr. Williams had been active in disaster preparedness, serving as volunteer medical advisor for disaster health services for the Omaha Red Cross.

"A lot of the things I am involved with are not laboratory issues," Dr. Williams says, such as completing a mass fatality management and mass care plan. "I think pathologists are well suited for this kind of work," he says. "Pathologists tend to be attuned to systems and are used to working with people of many professional backgrounds." Dr. Williams also co-chairs Omaha's Communications Subcommittee with the battalion chief of the Omaha Fire Department. The latter oversees the city's paramedics.

"Many physicians see bioterrorism preparedness as a disease challenge," Dr. Williams says. But he sees it as primarily a logistical challenge. For instance, a 150,000-lb shipment from the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, called a pushpack, may be delivered to a disaster site. The community must decide how to count, dispense, and track all the nerve agent and other medications in the pack and from other local caches.

"One of the unique aspects of this project is the degree to which health care systems, usually competitors, have worked together," Dr. Williams says. And because various health care systems are represented on Omaha's disaster preparedness subcommittees, when money-sharing came up, there was already close contact between hospitals and city government, which dispenses funds. Dr. Williams' advice: "Health care institutions should get involved early."