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High-tech medical tents ready to serve ailing pilgrims at pope's Philadelphia visit

By TOM AVRIL | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: September 27, 2015

A registrar records patients' vital statistics and issues each an ID bracelet with a unique bar code.

Nearby, computers display readings from up to 48 heart monitors, alerting nurses if they need to rush to a patient's bedside. Defibrillators, ventilators, and intravenous pumps are on standby.

And by Monday, it will all disappear.

The $600,000 medical facility, housed in a suite of inflatable tents just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, south of Eakins Oval, is one of four high-tech stations that will serve the thousands flocking to see Pope Francis. Combined, they have enough beds and equipment to administer intensive-care-level treatment to 170 people.

Aside from the drab, military-grade fabric walls, the facilities look like mini-hospitals. But Tom Grace, vice president for emergency preparedness at the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, avoids that term, noting that they lack essentials like X-ray and MRI machines.

"I'm careful to say it's a medical station," Grace said. "Our goal is to stabilize patients and get them to a hospital."

But the climate-controlled tents are so loaded with high-tech gear, surgery could be performed there if necessary. They are overseen by the emergency medical services division of the city fire department, and are staffed by professionals from local, state, and federal agencies and the Red Cross, as well as volunteers from hospitals in the region.

Grace, a veteran paramedic and flight nurse, is team leader for the one at Eakins Oval, erected Thursday afternoon.

On Friday, he gave a tour of the facility, which by midmorning had already hosted two patients with minor ailments - one of them an emergency responder, the other a Department of Defense employee.

The patient-care area consists of four tents, each measuring 25 by 35 feet, with floors made of thick, interlocking plastic tiles.

The front tent is for registration. Next is one designated for resuscitating patients with cardiac arrest. To the right is a tent for acute injuries such as fractures and burns. To the left go people with minor ailments, generally those who will be able to return to the festivities after treatment.

If needed, all 48 beds in the three tents can be used for intensive care.

The federally funded facility at Eakins Oval is called SEPA SMART - the Southeastern Pennsylvania Surge Medical Assistance Response Team. It also was used this year during the Parkway's July Fourth festivities.

Doctors and physician assistants wear yellow vests. Nurses and medics are in red, support staff in orange, and commanders in white. Up to 60 volunteers are on duty at any one time.

Among them is Amy Baker, 34, a physician assistant who teaches at Philadelphia University and also leads volunteer missions to Central America twice a year.

She said that recent natural disasters had motivated her to volunteer her services.

"Between Katrina and Haiti, I was feeling like I needed to do something," said Baker, who also works at a family practice in Collegeville.

Registered nurse Cathy Evans, another volunteer, marveled at the advances made in pop-up medical stations since she entered her profession more than 25 years ago.

"It's basically a hospital in a box," said Evans, who teaches at Widener University.

Behind the four medical tents are others for sheltering off-duty staff. Nearby trailers are packed with supplies, including a climate-controlled pharmacy unit. Inside that is a secure refrigerator with a lock whose combination is changed every 24 hours, Grace said.

It is all powered by a 125-kilowatt diesel-fueled generator.

Grace hopes that most patients will be treated and sent back to their friends and families. But he estimated that perhaps a third of them will have to go to a hospital after initial treatment at the tents.

As for the actual number of patients, he invoked a higher power.

"Only God knows," Grace said. "I don't think the pope knows, even."

tavril@phillynews.com

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