While rotating power outages had thousands of Denton residents pulling on extra layers or wearing mittens indoors, locals with disabilities and fragile medical conditions said they felt stranded. Moreover, they said, city officials had advice that could endanger them.
Rosalia and Haj Dutra found themselves resorting to extra cushions and wishful thinking as they tried to keep Rosalia’s 92-year-old mother, Ruth, comfortable and safe in her electrically powered hospice bed.
“We’ve had power cuts of about an hour off and on since 11:30 a.m.,” Rosalia Dutra said. Before that, the family was having shorter outages from 2 a.m. through 11:30 a.m.
Her mother suffered a stroke years ago, an event that paralyzed the left side of her body. Then Ruth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The Dutras have been her primary caretakers for 13 years.
“Her bed has an air bed, and it recirculates the air and keeps the mattress full,” Rosalia Dutra said. “When the power goes out, the bed sinks and makes it hard for my mother to stay propped up.”
The deflating mattress also makes it harder for the Dutras to move her to change, feed and reposition her to avoid bedsores. The family has examined the bed, but hasn’t located a battery pack that can power the bed’s mattress.
“The problem for us is that the outages have lasted an hour,” Rosalia Dutra said. “If the rolling blackouts were in 30-minute increments, it would be easier. I wish we’d known how long we’d be going without power.”
The Dutras said their house got cold, but they were able to light a fire in their fireplace to get more warmth. That warmth doesn’t quite reach the side of the house where her mother’s hospice bed is.
The Dutras haven’t been able to get through to the hospice company, either.
“I wish we weren’t having an hour of nothing,” she said.
Vonda Anderson, who rents a home on Bellemead Drive, said Monday that her home was without electricity, internet connection, reliable cellphone coverage and hot water.
“I have a pacemaker inside my body that shocks my heart when it stops,” Anderson said. “The pacemaker needs three things: the battery inside my body to work the defibrillator, and then I have a machine that plugs into the wall to charge the batteries, and that monitors the pacemaker and alerts the monitoring company. But there’s also the internet connection that keeps the monitoring company online to get the alerts.”
Anderson said her thermostat stayed at 50 degrees from early Monday morning into the evening.
“I have a great landlord,” she said. “He was over here [Sunday] working on something, and he always helps out. But what is he supposed to do with rolling blackouts?”
Anderson said the blackouts have prevented her machine from fully recharging, and if the battery drains, she’s at risk.
“If my heart stops, there’s nothing to tell my defibrillator to shock it,” she said. “We’re in a really screwy situation.”
Anderson said she and her doctor filled out forms to file with Denton Municipal Electric that safeguard customers who use devices that keep them alive from financial or emergency shut-offs.
“I used to live over on Ector Street, and I called them to make sure the form was transferred to my new address,” Anderson said. “That’s when they told me it has to be renewed every two years. And then there’s the fact that DME has had its office closed because of COVID.
“I told them, ‘I can’t send a scan of this to you. I don’t have a scanner. And if my doctor faxes a copy to you, is there even anyone in the office who is going to get it?’” Anderson said. “I don’t know if DME employees are going to work and they’re locking the doors or what. The woman I talked to was taking calls at home.”
Val Vera, a Denton resident who has muscular dystrophy, said the outages have affected his movement, his breathing and his nourishment.
Vera uses a motorized wheelchair that requires recharging. He has a tracheal tube that removes fluid from his lungs. He also has a feeding tube that allows him to pump nutrients into his digestive tract. The rolling outages created a crisis for him.
“Our power went out in the middle of the night,” he said. “On top of needing to charge my chair, I have a respiratory condition that requires me to use a nebulizer three times a day. With the power going out throughout the day and night, I’m not sure how much of that is going to work.”
Vera said he was frustrated by a message the city tweeted instructing the elderly and people with disabilities to call 911 if their medical devices are drained.
“They said to go to the hospital or call an ambulance,” he said. “So those of us with disabilities, the elderly and people who use things like CPAP machines are supposed to risk our health to maintain our health? This isn’t emergency planning. Hey, take your equipment and get to a hospital to plug in your machines. And, yeah, the hospital will have a nice comfortable room for you.”
Vera said the instructions would make sense if the world wasn’t reeling from a pandemic.
“Can you imagine someone elderly, someone who uses a walker, going out in below-freezing weather, to go to the hospital to have electricity? I’m sure that’s exactly what the hospitals want to see — a bunch of healthy disabled people showing up with our equipment during a pandemic.”
Vera said that, unlike Anderson, he was told that DME doesn’t keep a list of people who would be compromised during prolonged power outages, and that he was told HIPAA laws prevented them from having a database of customers who would be endangered by prolonged outages.
“People need to understand their privilege,” he said. “The inconvenience of having to put on another sweater or that your kids are bored, it’s not the same as what people with disabilities need to maintain our health.”