How to prepare for power outages if your health depends on medical devices at home
How to prepare for power outages if your health depends on medical devices at home

Jenny McClelland’s 13-year-old son, James, was born with a rare genetic condition that causes him to breathe while he sleep. To stay alive, he relies on a ventilator with an attached humidifier to make breathing less painful, a pulse oximeter to monitor his oxygen saturation and a suction machine to remove secretions that build up in his airways. Each of these devices requires electricity.

When the power goes out at her home in Clovis, California — which happens at least a few times a year and sometimes lasts for several days — the clock starts ticking.

“For years, we relied on his ventilator battery, which lasts about four hours,” McClelland says. “We learned how to improvise the circuit to bypass the humidifier. That way, less battery is used and we have a little more time to figure out what to do next.”

As power outages caused by grid failures or extreme weather become more common – Hurricane Beryl left millions without power in Texas – people who rely on home medical equipment are at increasing risk. About 4.5 million Medicare beneficiaries, and likely millions more with private health insurance, use such power-dependent equipment, including electric wheelchairs, hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen concentrators.

These solutions can be crucial for people with a wide range of medical conditions: they enable them to remain in their own homes and live independently, but still rely on a stable power supply.

And climate change is leading to “more frequent and severe weather events” and power outages, says Joan Casey, associate professor in the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Occupational Safety and Health Sciences.

About 80 percent of all major power outages between 2000 and 2023 were weather-related, according to a recent analysis by the nonprofit research group Climate Central. Strong winds and rain, winter storms and tropical cyclones, including hurricanes, were the most common causes, but wildfires and floods also contributed.

When studying power outages in the U.S. between 2018 and 2020, Casey and her colleagues also found that weather-related outages were more likely to last eight hours or longer than power grid outages, the period considered “medically relevant” because that’s when most medical devices’ batteries run out.

Longer power outages were also more likely to affect poorer counties where many people use long-lasting medical equipment, many of which do not have a backup power source such as a generator or battery power bank. “These devices cost thousands of dollars, and people who live in apartments can’t use generators because they’re not safe indoors,” Casey says.

While it’s helpful to have a backup power source, it’s no substitute for a well-thought-out disaster plan, says Sue Anne Bell, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing who studies the health impacts of disasters. Here’s how you can plan ahead:

Elements of a power outage emergency plan

Emergency power supply: Know the battery life of your specific devices and write down the model and serial number of your medical devices. Keep all device manuals in an easy-to-find location and keep spare batteries charged, especially if the weather forecast is gloomy. If possible, purchase a device called a power inverter, which allows you to charge batteries from your car’s cigarette lighter or 12-volt outlet.

Communication: Call your local fire and police departments to let first responders know you need home medical equipment. Many keep a list of people in the area who are at high risk. Identify the locations of shelters and power plants, and make a list of important phone numbers—your doctor, your home health care provider, your medical device manufacturer or oxygen provider, and friends and family who are willing to step in and help—and post it near your phone (ideally a landline in case your cell phone dies).

Also important: Let your local power company know that you rely on medical equipment. Many will prioritize restoring your power. During a power outage, pay attention to the power company’s estimate of when your power will be restored. It’s a good idea to have a battery-powered hand-crank radio on hand to keep up with the latest news.

Emergency plan to-dos for specific health problems

If you are using a ventilator, oxygen concentrator, or left ventricular assist device (LVAD): For all these “You should create a step-by-step plan,” says Bell. “What is my second source of energy? What is my third? Who can I call for help if those fail?”

Check with your local utility company to see if there is a program that provides a battery power bank to people who use medical devices at home. In some cases, insurance will also cover the cost of generators, says Dr. Nate Goldstein, president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

McClelland was able to obtain a portable battery power bank for her son James’ ventilator for free through Pacific Gas & Electric’s Disability Disaster Access and Resources program. “The battery unit will give us at least two days of power. When your child’s life depends on medical equipment, you get used to life-threatening events. But then you realize how fragile the system is,” she says.

If someone in your household uses a ventilator, have a resuscitation bag handy and teach yourself how to use it. For those with oxygen concentrators, providers should also provide stand-alone oxygen tanks that don’t rely on electricity, says Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. If your machine doesn’t have one, ask for one. Regular oxygen tanks last 24 to 48 hours, he says, depending on how many liters per minute you need. Calculate the number of tanks you should have on hand based on your flow — and ask your doctor if you can safely top up your supply at a reduced rate. Don’t use candles or gas lights when using oxygen.

If you are bedridden: Many people in hospice or those recovering at home from a serious injury or illness have a plug-in hospital bed that raises and lowers and an alternating pressure air mattress to reduce the risk of pressure ulcers. “The beds usually have a manual override so they can be moved by hand,” says Goldstein. The mattress, on the other hand, will lose air if there’s a power outage, so you’ll need to replace it with something simpler like a foam mattress. “To prevent pressure ulcers, caregivers should turn patients regularly and learn techniques for using pillows to reduce the risk,” says Goldstein.

If you sleep with a CPAP or BiPAP machine: “Most people can go a night or two without one,” Rizzo says. But it’s a good idea to have a spare charged battery and an inverter. If your unit has a humidifier, make sure you have plenty of distilled water on hand, too.

If you are taking insulin or other medicines that need to be kept cool: Insulin will retain its full potency when stored in a refrigerator at 36 to 46 degrees — and your refrigerator will stay cool for two to three hours if you keep the door closed. After that, the medication is probably fine at room temperature — as long as the temperature is below 86 degrees, because that’s when insulin begins to break down and become less effective. If the liquid changes color or contains lumps or crystals, don’t use it. You can put it in a cooler, but if it freezes, throw it away.

“When using unrefrigerated insulin, it is important to monitor blood sugar levels. If your blood sugar levels rise to dangerous levels or you experience excessive thirst or urination, nausea or vomiting, seek medical attention,” says Dr. Robert Gabbay, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association.

Many other medicines also need to be refrigerated, so it’s a good idea to read the label carefully or ask your doctor which medicines might spoil during a power outage.

Ginny Graves is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area who covers science, health, and psychology.

Copyright: NPR