By Linda Leier Thomason
“I was finalizing last-minute seating changes in the ballroom,” Plummer recalls, “and as I turned to hear the banquet captain announce there were three minutes until the doors opened, I saw a flushed, shaking guest had left the cocktail reception, entered the room, and was seated at a table crying. The guest thought she was having a stroke, so I immediately asked the banquet captain to hold the 350 guests outside the banquet space.”
Plummer and the banquet captain made split-second decisions that ensured the safety of the guest without delaying the event.
“The guest was humiliated by her sudden illness,” Plummer recalls. “She wanted to get out of the room before everyone entered, but we did not want to cause harm to her, so she was lifted on her chair into a hallway until the ambulance arrived. When it did arrive, she did not want to be transported, and the spouse was torn between her wishes and her health, so I made the decision for them and she was transported to the hospital.”
Plummer was able to pass quick tasks to her support staff, so she could provide proper care to her guest.
“The onsite meeting staff, and particularly the banquet captain, could not have been more efficient. I was fortunate to have had my first medical emergency experience at this property. They had a well-designed plan in place with a back-of-the-house arrival spot for the ambulance and a process for who makes the 911 call.”
After testing at the hospital, the guest was diagnosed with heat stroke and recovered just fine.
Kimberly Ritter, senior account manager with Nix Conference and Meeting Management of St. Louis, MO, also had a guest succumb to heat at an outdoor event in June 2011. The guest collapsed to the ground, unconscious, causing Ritter and her team to quickly assess the situation and call an ambulance. The program went on as the Nix team directed all activity via hand movements, so as not to bring attention to the situation. While remaining silent, the team cleared a path for the emergency crew and guided the crowd away from the area to allow for departure of the ambulance.
“The Nix staff knew to look for communications from the senior account manager,” Ritter says. “Everyone remained calm and allowed the emergency crew to work. Some attendees were concerned, but seemed confident that Nix was handling the situation professionally.”
This streamlined response comes from experience, well-written plans, staff training, collaborative partnerships with meeting vendors, and communication about emergency situations with venue staff prior to meeting commencement. Though medical training of onsite staff is seldom a factor in choosing a location, planners should inquire about safety certification, location of area hospitals, and availability of onsite medical equipment.
Plummer admits that up until that Florida incident, her only emergency medical plan involved calling the squad, “which is not a bad plan, but incomplete.” Since then, she has updated her checklist to ask venues about medical emergency situations, and she has created alternate staffing plans.
“I’m still learning things at every event, but my checklist for medical emergencies is more thorough now,” Plummer says.
Her planning was tested again in 2004, when a guest collapsed at a Chicago event. This time, she had a process in place, and a doctor was in attendance to tend to the guest prior to the ambulance’s arrival. The guest was conscious and speaking as he departed the club on a stretcher, but he suffered a heart attack prior to the ambulance’s departure and was pronounced dead at the local hospital. Plummer and her support staff placed phone calls to colleagues and university leadership, and a colleague stayed with the deceased’s spouse until family members arrived from out of state.
Though Plummer feels her team managed the situation in a satisfactory manner, she said, “I carry a bit of guilt because I had a dual focus of wanting [the attendee] to be okay and also wanting my event to be okay. I was relieved when he appeared fine as he left. When I learned he died, I felt horrible and petty for worrying about things like whether the entrée would be dry because the dinner started late.”
Therein lies the challenge of handling medical emergencies at events: planners must be compassionate and efficient.
“I need to care about my guests’ comfort, including the ones who are not part of the crisis,” Plummer says. “On one hand, I care very much about what is happening to that person and their family. On the other hand, I have a job to do that involves thinking on my feet and making the best of whatever comes my way at an event.”
Ritter also acknowledges these diplomatic, grace-under-fire skills and says it is imperative for meeting management staff to remain calm and show no sign of panic in an emergency situation. She believes composed responses change the atmosphere of a crisis and that being prepared and educated are key to assisting in a medical emergency.
Seasoned event planners like Plummer and Ritter know they can’t plan for every emergency situation, but each has learned that putting protocol in place allows them to remain calm while making the best decisions under duress.
1. You can’t be the only person who knows everything about an event. Have a backup plan for your own incapacity.
2. Understand that you are the leader when a medical emergency happens. Everyone will look to you for direction and implementation of the emergency plan.
3. Create a backup plan for ill speakers or other presenters.
4. During the pre-event walk-through, determine the venue’s procedure for a 911 call and determine staff assignments for the call.
5. Ask guests to list medical conditions and allergy information on the back of their name badges.
6. Accompany a trusted person to the injured person’s guestroom to retrieve necessary items like medication, an insurance card, or identification.
7. Send the injured attendee to the hospital with a companion who can help answer medical questions and provide general updates without violation of HIPAA. Exchange cell phone numbers before departure for the hospital, and arrange return travel for the accompanying attendee.
8. Unless you are certified, leave CPR and AED usage to trained professionals.
9. Do not rely on a spouse for decision-making. If your organization policy is that once an ambulance is called the guest must be transported, enforce the policy with confidence.
10. Carry emergency contact information of all attendees and know who will notify family members of incidents.
11. Know who can and cannot swim for events involving boating or other water activities.
12. Prepare crisis communication materials in advance and identify spokespeople.