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Emergency preparedness for home oxygen users

Living in eastern North Carolina during hurricane season can be challenging, especially if you use home oxygen. It is extremely important for people who depend on Long Term Oxygen Therapy (LTOT) to have up-to-date emergency plans in place to cover all crisis situations where electricity is expected to be out for longer than a few hours. If you are a LTOT user, you probably already know that bread, milk, a flashlight and new batteries will not be enough to keep you breathing through the storm.
First, assess your medical and oxygen (O2) needs. Does your home O2 supplier make sure that you always have at least a 72-hour supply of O2 tanks available as soon as severe weather reports are issued for this area? Making sure you have enough O2 if you cannot use your concentrator should be the first step in developing your plan. No Person Left Behind offers a free emergency and evacuation planning guide for LTOT users on their website, www.nopersonleftbehind.org. Just print this very thorough guide, fill it out according to your needs, and keep it in a visible and easily accessible place. If you do not have access to a computer or printer, you can develop your own plan based on the following suggestions.
• Keep your home O2 provider’s name and emergency telephone number posted in a visible location. If you have a cell phone, program their name and emergency number in it.
• Based on the amount of O2 you use (your liter flow), how many tanks will you need to get through 72 hours (three days) without electricity? Your provider should be able to give you this information in writing.
• Call your home O2 provider as soon as you begin to hear severe weather alerts. Providers are responsible for making sure that their LTOT customers have the O2 they need during extended power outages. Please question if your provider tells you that their emergency plan is for you to go to the nearest hospital when your O2 runs out. Because most hospitals cannot keep more supplemental O2 tanks on hand than they need for immediate inpatient and emergency department use.
• Are you able to connect, turn on and correctly set your flow amount on an O2 tank? If not, ask your provider to teach you, and/or someone in your house, as soon as possible. Ask for written instructions, also.
• Do you have a back-up generator? Has it been serviced for the season? If not, get that done now. Can you or someone in your home operate it? Try to keep at least three days’ fuel on hand, especially during hurricane season.
• Make a complete list of all your medications, all your doctors’ names and the name and telephone number for your pharmacy. Post this list in a visible place. Keep a two-week supply of your medications on hand, if possible. If you use a nebulizer for any of your respiratory medications, ask your doctor to prescribe metered-dose inhaler versions of those medications for emergency use.
• Keep all of your important medical documents, such as insurance cards, living wills and medical power of attorney papers in a safe but easily accessible place. Make sure you take your home O2 provider information, medication list, and medical papers with you if you go stay with friends/family or have to evacuate your home.
• If you have not already done so, call your electricity provider to make them aware that you depend on electricity to power your oxygen supply. Ask what emergency plans they have in place for LTOT customers. We have three primary providers in Beaufort County – Washington Utilities at 252-975-9320; Tideland EMC at 252-943-6046; and Progress Energy at 1-800-419-6356. Your company’s number is another good one to program into that cell phone!
• If you live alone, arrange for family or friends to routinely check on you, especially when severe weather is possible. Whether you live alone or not, a strong support system of family and friends will make any crisis situation much easier for you.
• Stock up on enough bottled water for at least three days. Plan on at least one gallon per person per day; however, if any of your medications give you a dry mouth, increase your amount to two gallons per day. Dehydration can be life-threatening, so make sure you keep plenty of drinking water available.
• For information about shelters that can accommodate LTOT people during severe weather situations, call the Beaufort County Emergency Management Office at 252-946-2046.
• Rely on local TV and radio reports to get information about impending emergency situations. Reserve 911 calls for medical, police or fire emergencies.
• Copy and share your plan with at least two family members or friends not living with you, thus making your plan available even if your copy is lost or destroyed.
• Finally, pat yourself on the back for being so proactive! When you are well prepared, all but the very worst crises can be little more than inconveniences.  Let’s face it: one of the best qualities about eastern North Carolina, especially the Inner and Outer Banks is the resiliency of her people. We know how to cope!

Alene P. Warden is the manager of cardiopulmonary services at Vidant Beaufort Hospital.