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Power outage was crisis for LVAD patient

Carol and Lou Cardinali had trouble recharging his

Carol and Lou Cardinali had trouble recharging his LVAD when they lost power during the storm. (Nov. 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

The night of the superstorm, Lou and Carol Cardinali were in their car driving into the full force of Sandy as her inner bands rode roughshod over Long Island.

They were driving for a life-or-death reason.

Lou has a heart implant known as a left ventricular assist device -- an LVAD -- and his batteries were running dangerously low. The machine has assumed the pumping job his heart can no longer perform.

With the electricity already out at home, the Bethpage couple had no choice other than to brave the barreling winds. Lou needs electricity, his wife said, as much as he needs air.

Carol noted that doctors who implanted his device in April told Lou to go to the nearest fire station or emergency room when in urgent need of a recharge. They wound up traveling to both.

Neither place, the Cardinalis say, would allow Lou, 68, to reboot his batteries, which were weakening as moments fleeted by.

Lou Cardinali is one of thousands of Long Islanders who depend on a steady and reliable flow of electrical power. When outages occur, their lives are under sudden and serious threat.

Some patients are on electrical suction devices, others rely on oxygen concentrators, respirators, kidney dialysis machines or rocking bed ventilators. The latter devices are electronically driven and assist breathing through a technique once used by the British Navy to revive drowning victims.

More than 3,000 Long Island residents have signed onto the Long Island Power Authority's Critical Care Program, according to LIPA spokeswoman Joanne Schindelheim. LIPA representatives telephone patients, or their caretakers, to warn of severe weather that may deliver a knockout blow to electrical power.

Patients, however, are on their own when it comes to finding an alternate source of power, which is why the Cardinalis, who don't have a portable generator, were driving into the potent sweep of gale-force winds.

As life proved tense during the few hours the Cardinalis sought electrical power, a similar rush of fear affected others who rely on electricity to survive, either for themselves or a relative.

Yvonne Novy-Cutler of Old Bethpage said she hadn't heard of the LIPA program until last week. But she is outraged that the utility did not institute a priority restoration plan for the group home where her son, David Novy, 31, lives in Plainview. She had no way to seek an alternate energy source to help her son when its power went out.

Novy has cerebral palsy; he's blind and requires an electronic suction device to keep his airway clear and enhance his ability to breathe.

Despite Novy-Cutler's repeated calls to LIPA, she said it took nine days to restore power to her son's group home.

"I am outraged," Novy-Cutler said. "Why would it take so long to get electricity where it's a matter of life or death?"

She said her son and other medically fragile patients were transferred to a nearby assisted-living facility. Power was provided through the home's own generator.

Seeking power as the eye of the storm approached was surreal and unrewarding, the Cardinalis said.

"When we got to the fire station I told them about the LVAD, but they wouldn't let me plug in," said Lou Cardinali, a retired customer service representative for Con Edison in the city where he worked for 39 years.

Fire station officials instead told the couple to go to a storm shelter in Levittown and that they might find an outlet there, Carol Cardinali said.

"They were very nice but they wouldn't let us just sit there for a little while so he could get his recharge," she said.

Newsday's repeated calls to the department went unanswered last week.

Turned away by fire department officials, the Cardinalis then headed out into the mounting storm to seek an electrical outlet at St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage.

But when the storm-battered pair arrived at the emergency room, a triage nurse, Carol said, refused to allow her husband to plug into an outlet and receive about 15 minutes of electrical power.

"How much would that cost them? Probably only a few cents," she said, adding the nurse told her husband he would have to undergo a full examination and be seen by an emergency room physician.

She added that doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, where Lou was implanted with the LVAD, wrote to St. Joseph administrators and to the fire department earlier this year. Both were informed that an LVAD patient lived in their vicinity and might come to their sites for an electrical recharge.

Dr. Howard Sussman, chief medical officer for St. Joseph Hospital, said regardless of the letter, anyone who comes to a hospital emergency department is, by law, supposed to undergo a medical examination.

"We've had people come in since the storm who were on oxygen at home," Sussman said. "They were on oxygen concentrators and had no power and couldn't maintain them. We triaged them and we found a safe place for them.

"We would have been more than happy to do this but he would have had to go through the medical registration and examination."

Carol Cardinali said the examination would have cost more than $700 and she and her husband could not afford it.

Lou ultimately found a neighbor with a generator who allowed him to recharge.

Dr. Harvey Miller, an Islip allergist and immunologist, said a half-dozen of his patients wound up in emergency rooms as a result of power outages that have lasted since the storm struck two weeks ago.

"I have many patients who rely on their nebulizer machines for the management of severe bronchial asthma and obviously you need electricity to make them useful," Miller said. "There hasn't been any attention to the fact that they [LIPA] don't have the plight of these people in mind."

Miller and Long Island advocates for patients in need of life-sustaining electricity support a portable generator rental or lending plan, headed by LIPA's Critical Care Program.

"I support that 150 percent," Miller said.

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