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Hospital care in the shadow of Punxsutawney Phil

One doctor gears up to treat the occasional groundhog bite

Keywords: Groundhog Day generates lots of emergency care at Punxsutawney Area Hospital

Published in the February 2009 issue of Today's Hospitalist

HOW WOULD YOU FEEL if one day a year, your ED volume swelled by more than 50% and your hospital was flooded with everything from broken bones to chainsaw injuries related to ice sculpting? Throw in hypothermia and an occasional groundhog bite, and you’d likely be working in Punxsutawney, Pa., home to the world’s largest—and rowdiest—Groundhog Day celebration.

The event, which sees the town’s population rocket from 7,000 to about 40,000 for a 36- hour window, is Punxsutawney’s marquee attraction. But it also casts a long shadow of injuries that keep the local hospital busy.

T. Clark Simpson, MD, a part-time hospitalist and a full-time emergency physician at Punxsutawney Area Hospital, says the cause of many of those injuries is fairly basic. While the main event occurs on the morning of Feb. 2, the party starts the day before.

Many revelers stay up—and outside in the frigid February temperatures—through the night. The combination of alcohol and exposure tends to keep the ED busy. Visits to the ED jump from an average of 30 or so to 50 or more.

Dr. Simpson says that as the town has made the event more family-friendly, the hospital has seen fewer alcohol-related injuries and more problems related to winter storms, like broken wrists and other bones. “The last two years there have been ice storms,” he says, “but it hasn’t dissuaded people from coming.”

And while the hospital has treated groundhog bites in the past, they’re now fairly uncommon. That’s because when handlers pull Punxsutawney Phil out of his “burrow” (and there are eight available groundhog stand-ins) to check his shadow, they now wear protective gloves.

So how does the 49-bed hospital prepare for such a big spike in volume? Dr. Simpson says that a lot of physicians are on what he calls “double-secret super back-up.” Many attend the festival and are nearby anyway, he says, so they’re available.

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