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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958

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St. Anne's Hospital Fire Remembrance

By Dr. Louis Dvonch

In 1958 I, Dr. Louis Dvonch, and my brother, Dr. William Dvonch, had both served on the staff of St. Anneís Hospital in Chicago for about 10 years. On the afternoon of December 1, 1958, I was in my office in Berwyn seeing patients when I received a telephone call from my late wife, Julie, informing me that the hospital had just called my home about a fire at a grammar school near the hospital. As soon as I hung up the phone from talking with her, I received a call from St. Anneís ordering me to return there immediately. I then closed my office and rushed over to the hospital where, like most doctors, I stayed for the next four days and three nights to attend to the injured.

I still recall the confusion of the first hours, and the heroic efforts of all involved to attempt to deal with the disaster. Because there had been a fire at a nearby factory about ten years prior, we at the hospital had some experience in dealing with several fire victims at once, and the hospital had developed a disaster response plan in case anything like it should ever happen again. But we were nevertheless overwhelmed as the extent of the disaster became apparent and the large number of victims flooded the emergency room.

I clearly recall that Dr. James (Jim) Callahan was the Chief of Staff of physicians at the hospital at the time, and that Dr. James (Jim) Segraves was in charge of the disaster response plan and its implementation. It is impossible to underestimate how important these two men were in providing the leadership necessary to coordinate the medical staffís activities during the disaster. I am certain that many lives were saved because of their actions, and recall that all of the staff physicians appreciated the outstanding leadership they provided as they managed all medical care decision responsibilities.

As part of these duties, late in the evening of the day of the disaster, doctors Callahan and Segraves called meetings of the groups of the hospital to coordinate how things were going to be handled. The Medical Staff (the physicians) met about 9:00 PM, and Drs. Callahan and Segraves laid down four rules that I remember:

  1. All physicians were to remain at the hospital for as long as necessary. This meant that the doctorís private practice patients would have to get their medical care elsewhere until the situation at the hospital was stabilized;
  2. All physicians would not charge for any of their services provided to the victims or their families;
  3. The staff would be organized into teams of three or four physicians and each team was to be assigned specific hospital rooms, each of which generally contained two beds. I do not remember who the other doctors on my team were, but I do remember that my brother, William, was not on my team. Because there were so many patients requiring so much care, for the first four days all of our time was spent operating and otherwise caring for our assigned patients, so we doctors did not interact very much with other doctors who were not on our team. Therefore, I donít recall seeing my brother at all during the first several days after the fire, but I know that he was very involved and performed many surgeries during this time.
  4. All medical orders had to be written by a member of the St. Anneís Hospital Medical Staff. This meant that all other non-St Anneís physicians were advisory, and that ultimate responsibility for treatment and care of the patients at St. Anneís was with the Medical Staff of St Anneís. By establishing a clear chain of command there was never any question of who was in charge or who was responsible, and thus there were no problems in this regard throughout the crisis.

As the number of injured being brought to the hospital rose, it quickly became evident that there were not enough vacant beds in the hospital to handle the large number of children, so it was first necessary to free up as many beds as possible for the victims by discharging as many patients as possible, as soon as possible. This, of course, only added to the confusion as dozens of patients and their loved ones were exiting the building at the same time as the victims and their families were entering it.

On top of that there was the anguish and agony of the many parents as they arrived looking for their children, many of which were already deceased. If their children had survived, the parents of course wanted the very best and immediate care for them which, due to the overwhelming number of casualties, was difficult for the hospital to provide. Unfortunately this led to added stress in what was already an unmanageably stressful situation for all involved.

It was here that the administration of the hospital, which included the nuns of the order of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, and lay workers, provided a most valuable service in consoling and comforting the families of the victims and the survivors themselves. They, like the physicians and other medical and non-medical personnel including nurses, technicians, laboratory workers, orderlies, cooks, maintenance workers, supply workers and others, worked tirelessly in an extremely stressful environment for many days with little or no rest to sustain them. I am certain that many of these have their own stories to tell.

As the day wore on, I recall that we soon ran low of many medical supplies, like blood plasma. I donít know how it occurred, but almost all of these supplies were very quickly replenished, even though other nearby hospitals must have been running low also as they were themselves overwhelmed with patients. Whoever was responsible for the planning and execution of the prompt restocking of these essential medical supplies are among the many unsung heroes that were responsible for saving many lives.

I also recall the valuable support that the physicians Womenís Auxiliary, which included the wives of the staff physicians, provided during the crisis. My own wife, Julie, spent many hours at the hospital helping the administration with whatever needed to be done, as well as bringing me clean clothes from home each day, which were sorely needed. Although I remember talking with her on the phone several times in the evenings while she was at home, I do not recall ever seeing my wife while she was at the hospital, even though we were both there at the same time; I was too busy seeing patients. The clothes that she brought for me she left in the physicians' lounge, where I remember seeing many bags of clothes that the other physicians' wives had brought for their husbands.

All surgeons had been trained on skin grafting procedures, so we all performed many of these and other surgeries during the days and weeks following the fire, but the burn victims suffered not only from the actual burn and the surrounding burn area, but from a multitude of complications including broken bones, soft tissue trauma, infection, respiratory complications from heat and smoke inhalation, shock and multiple internal organ failure. Thus, diagnosis and treatment was very complex and varied with each individual and how they progressed with treatment.

Therefore, over the next days and weeks the medical staff was very grateful for the advice and support of many other doctors, some from very far away, to assist with the care of the children. I recall being personally in contact with a university in Texas concerning how to treat one particularly difficult burn case. I donít recall the name of the physicians or which university they worked at, but their advice was very helpful. Our Chief of Staff, Dr. Jim Callahan, was a Major General in the Medical Core of the Army and so was very well connected with many other hospitalsí and universitiesí trauma centers through out the country. Jimís help in obtaining the advice and assistance of many other physicians was crucial in obtaining the best medical care for our patients as possible and saved many lives.

There were very few photographs taken at this time because everyone was so busy attending to the needs of the patients, and because photographs were generally not permitted in the hospital. We certainly never allowed pictures to be taken in the operating room because of the explosive nature of the anesthesia. However, somehow a photographer managed to take a photograph (below) through an open door from the hallway outside the operating room where I was performing skin grafting surgery on one of the victims. They must have taken the picture when the door was opened for someone to exit, probably to get additional surgical supplies. I assume that the photographer was ordered to leave immediately after they took this first picture, because I never saw or heard of any others being taken. I never knew that a photographer was there or that this photograph had been taken until later when the photographer returned and presented a copy to me. It has hung in my home office ever since as a solemn reminder of that tragic time. The intensity, concern, caring and emotion shown in the eyes of the nurses visible in the photograph accurately reflect the environment inside of the operating room and the entire hospital at this time.

Dr. Louis Dvonch and operating team performs skin graft on a victim of the OLA fire.

At the end of the fourth day I returned home. I am not ashamed to admit that I broke down soon after I got there.

As a physician I had the training and experience that enabled me to cope with what I needed to do while I was at the hospital; I knew that I could not help anyone if I became emotional, and I did not. But seeing my home and family again forced me to look at what had transpired on a human rather than a medical level. I recall the joy with which I reached out and hugged my children, and the sorrow I had for those who could not.

The next morning I got up and went right back to the hospital and again resumed my duties as surgeon and attending physician, as did every other member of the medical and administrative staffs of the hospital. We, as did the many others that were affected by the disaster, did our best to help during a time that for many was the most difficult of our lives.

Dr. Louis Dvonch
Manassas, VA
March 25, 2013