40 years later: Longtime Southcoast Health staff reflect on Blizzard of 1978

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Massachusetts and Rhode Island get their share of bad winter storms, but none worse than the Blizzard of 1978, which took 99 lives in those states, closed roads and schools for a week or more, led to a ban on driving for non-essential workers and reshaped coastal communities with high tides and near-hurricane force wind.

For the hundreds of people who worked at St. Luke’s, Charlton Memorial and Tobey hospitals, the Blizzard of ’78 was a test of their ability to care for patients in the most challenging conditions imaginable. It also was a reminder of what teamwork enabled them to accomplish.

Beth Sylvia today is Director of Patient Access and Southcoast Care Connect, in charge of scheduling every test for every patient at every Southcoast Health hospital and clinic. But in 1978 she was a unit secretary helping things run at St. Luke’s Hospital, where she already had worked for six years alongside several friends, who like her had recently finished their education and gone to work for their hometown hospital.

On Monday, Feb. 6, she piled into her friend’s 10-year-old Plymouth Valiant for the start of her shift at 7 a.m. The weather forecasts were dire, but they were young and it was a short drive from her house in the far south end of New Bedford. By the time they finished work at 3:30 p.m., more than a foot of snow had fallen, and the wind was howling.

They made it to County Street and headed for the south end, got about as far as St. James Church and got stuck — along with a lot of other cars.

It was a longer walk to her home near Fort Rodman than it was back to St. Luke’s so the two of them trudged back to the hospital. They would spend the next three days living on the third floor with other hospital staff (patients had been moved to the first two floors).

Over the next few days, they worked “wherever we were needed” then grabbed showers and tried to unwind.

“It was a lot of fun because we all were in our teens and 20s. The patients who were able to would join the hospital staff in the cafeteria to share food and some laughs.

“Everyone got very close,” she remembers. “People just worked together and got done anything that needed to be done. I actually worked in the emergency room, which was very quiet. Even emergency vehicles had a hard time getting anywhere.”

On the third day after the storm’s onset, National Guard vehicles began transporting hospital employees to and from work — and did so for about a week.

Bo Yetter Breneman today lives near Philadelphia, but in the winter of 1978 she was a young dietitian working for a food service company and assigned to St. Luke’s Hospital for a few months.

Little did she know that when she parked her car on a street near the hospital on Sunday night, Feb. 5, that it would be two weeks before she would be able to return to it.

The food service staff and management stayed in a house near the hospital.

“We worked pretty much fourteen-hour days and then some middle of the nights to feed the 11-7 shift,” she said. St. Luke’s opened the old nurses’ residence at the White House so that staff would be safe. The hospital laundry provided clean scrubs and lab coats for everyone who was snowed in.

By late in the first week after the storm ended on Tuesday, food supplies began to run low and the National Guard delivered perishables to the food service staff.

There was a ban on non-essential driving, but “we were finally allowed to leave on Saturday. I went to the home of a coworker in Fall River and only hospital personnel and emergency workers were on the highways. It was eerie.

“We survived. It was a lot of long hours but we persevered and patient care continued,” she said. “I look back now 40 years later and think of all of the things I learned that week, one of them being that a job needed to be done and teamwork” made all the difference.

Sheila Beausoleil was working in radiology, and her then-fiancé Steve picked her up after work.

“A typical fifteen-minute ride home took one and a half hour through the city,” she said. “The next day, Steve was required to report to the National Guard, providing rides to hospital workers and looking for stranded people in cars. I was brought to work by Steve in one of the National Guard trucks one day and the other day brought in on a snowmobile. It was amazing seeing everyone work together.”

David Despres, who today is an equipment operator at St. Luke’s, was working as a transporter during the storm.

“As my 1971 Charger was in the City Lot buried in snow, I crashed at a buddy’s house on Bedford Street for a couple of days.”

Forty years ago, the Blizzard of 1978 would change forever the way Massachusetts would respond to forecasted winter storms. But one thing that it did not change was the commitment of Southcoast Health hospital staff to care for their patients and one another.