In normal times, we have the luxury of modern medical facilities that can isolate a sick patient from healthy people. In a survival scenario, however, most organized medical care will no longer exist, placing the average citizen into the position of medic for his/her family or community.
Although we may be thrown back to the 19th century medically by a disaster, we have the benefit of knowing about infections and hygiene. The knowledge of how contagious diseases are spread and how to sterilize supplies give us a major advantage over medical personnel of bygone eras.
Using this knowledge, it should be possible for a medically prepared person to put together a “sick room” or “hospital tent” that will minimize the chance of infectious disease running rampant through the community. The cornerstone of care is to deal effectively and humanely with the sick while keeping the healthy from becoming infected.
In the face of a looming catastrophe, you must first make the decision to either stay in place or get out of Dodge. If you’re staying in place, choose a room where the sick will be cared for. That room should be separate from common areas, like the kitchen. It must have good ventilation and light, and preferably, a door or other physical barrier to the rest of the retreat.
If the wiser choice is to leave the area, shelter is an issue that may be addressed with, for example, tents. Choose a tent as the sick room and place it on the periphery of the camp. Again, good ventilation is important to allow air circulation.
With sick rooms in a retreat or camp, it is important to designate them before a disaster occurs. For groups where a number of people are living together, procrastinating will cause someone to lose their room or tent for “the greater good”. This invariably breeds resentment at a time when everyone needs to pull together.
Sometimes, you may find that there isn’t a spare room or tent to assign as a sick room. If you only have a common area to work with, 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, keep group members with injuries separate from those with infectious diseases such as influenza. Although wounds will sometimes become infected, they won’t likely be as contagious as epidemic illnesses.
A sick room in a retreat with air conditioning won’t qualify as decent ventilation when the power’s down. In this case, air ducts are actually more a danger than a benefit. Microbes passing through the air ducts in the sick room to other areas may present a risk for transmission of disease. Cover with duct tape. Keep windows or tent flaps open, however, except in particularly bad weather. Screening may be necessary in areas with lots of insects, or netting provided over the beds.
Furnishings should be minimal, with a work surface, an exam area, and bed spaces. In mild weather, some of these beds can be outside, as long as shade is provided via a canopy or other means. Hard surfaces are preferable to fabric upholstery, as cloth can harbor disease-causing organisms. Even bedding might best be covered in plastic. The more areas that can be disinfected easily, the better.
It’s important to have a way to eliminate waste products of bedridden patients, even if it’s just a 5-gallon bucket and some bleach. Containers with lids should be made available to put used sick room items that need cleaning.
A station should be set up near the entrance of the sick room or hospital tent for caregivers’ masks, gloves, gowns, aprons, and other personal protection items (have a good supply of these items). You’ll should also have a basin with water, soap, or other disinfectant. Thermometers should be dipped in alcohol.
Many 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.
Having a lot of these may seem like overkill to you, but there can never be enough dedicated medical supplies. Expect to care for more people that you’ve planned for. There will always be additions that weren’t planned, and medical items will be expended much faster than you’d expect.
Cleaning supplies should also be considered medical preparedness items. You’ll want to clean the sick room thoroughly on a daily basis. Hard surfaces should be regularly cleaned with soap and water, or use other disinfectants such as a 1:10 bleach solution. Don’t forget to disinfect the 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. As these items may carry disease-causing organisms, wash your hands after use. The same goes 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 whistle or other noisemaker 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 distress.
The duties of a medic involve more than how to control bleeding or splint an orthopedic injury. Medical problems involving infectious disease may take a heavy toll on your people if the sick aren’t isolated from the healthy. Knowing how to put together an effective sick room will go a long way towards helping the sick get healthy and the healthy stay that way.
Joe Alton, MD
Find out more about dealing with infectious disease in times of trouble in our 700 page Third Edition of the Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Medical Help is Not on the Way, available at Amazon or on this website.