In good times, we have the luxury of modern medical facilities and advanced techniques to isolate a sick patient from healthy people. If we ever find ourselves in a grid-down scenario, most of these advantages will go the way of the dinosaur, and we will be placed in, essentially, the same medical environment we experienced in the 19th century.
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We do have the benefit of knowledge of sterilization and the way contagious diseases are spread, so we have a head start on our ancestors. Using this knowledge, it should be possible for the medically prepared to put together a “sick room” or “hospital tent” that will minimize the chance of infectious disease running rampant through your family or mutual assistance group.
Hopefully, when the you-know-what hits the fan, you’ll have made or quickly make the decision to bug in or bug out. If you’re staying in place, pick a sick room. I would choose one at one end of the house, a room with a window or two to allow light and ventilation and a door that can be closed. If you bugging out, choose a hospital tent and place it on the periphery of your camp. Making these decisions before things go bad is important, as you will inevitably be kicking someone out of their room or tent if you don’t. As such, you can expect resentment at a time when everyone needs to pull together to survive.
Makeshift Sick Rooms
If you don’t have a spare room or tent, you’ll have to raise a makeshift barrier, such as a sheet of plastic, to separate the sick from the healthy. Even if you have a dedicated sick room, this might make sense to hang over the door for when you go in and out. You’ll want to keep the injured separate from those with infectious diseases such as influenza/pneumonia, although sometimes wounds will become infected.
If you’re staying in place, your sick room’s air conditioning ducts will be close to useless in a power-down scenario, and could actually pose a major risk to the rest of your group. Cover them with duct tape. Keep windows or vent flaps open if at all possible, except in particularly inclement weather.
A hospital tent to deal with injuries (not what you would see with possibly contagious disease)
Furnishings should be minimal, with a work surface, an exam area, and bed spaces. Cloth surfaces, such as you see in sofas, carpets, etc. can harbor pathogens (disease-causing organisms) and should be avoided if possible. Even bedding for the contagious might best be covered in plastic. The more areas that can be wiped down/disinfected easily, the better (try to do that daily with a carpet!). It’s important to have a way to eliminate waste products from your bedridden patients, even if it’s just a 5 gallon bucket and some bleach. Have closed containers like hampers to put used sick room items that need to be cleaned.
A station near the entrance of the room or tent for masks, gloves, gowns, and disinfecting would be very helpful. You’ll need a basin with water, soap or other disinfectant, and towels that should be kept for exclusive use by the caregiver. There should only be one (you, survival medic!) person involved in caring for the sick, especially with possibly contagious illness.
For supplies, get plenty of masks and gloves; gowns can be commercially made, can be plastic coveralls, or even dry cleaning clothes covers. Many people consider medical supplies to consist of gauze, tourniquets, and battle dressings, but you must also dedicate sets of sheets, towels, pillows, and other items to be used in the sick room. Keep these items separate from the bedding, bathing, and eating materials of the healthy members of your family or group. This may seem excessive to you, but you can never have enough dedicated medical supplies. You may save the life of a loved one or even your entire group if you are diligent in putting together your medical stores.
Cleaning supplies should also be considered medical preparedness items. You’ll want to clean the sick room as well as possible on a daily basis. Clean hard surfaces that may have germs on them with soap and water, or use other disinfectants. These include doorknobs, tables, sinks, toilets, counters, and even toys. Wash bed sheets and towels frequently; boil them if you have no other way to clean them. Consider bedding and clothes of the ill to be infected, and wash/disinfect your hands right after touching them. Ditto for plates, cups, etc. Any equipment brought into the sick room should stay there.
One additional item that will be important to your sick room patients: Give them a noisemaker of some sort that will allow them to alert you when they need help. This will decrease anxiety and give them confidence that you will know when they are in trouble.
Next time, we’ll discuss disinfectants as well as personal measures that will help keep the medical caregiver from becoming ill themselves.