US doctor Natasha Kathuria has practised medicine in 11 countries, worked through the 2014 “Snowmageddon” storm that brought Atlanta to a halt

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People wrapped in blankets wait in line to fill propane tanks

US doctor Natasha Kathuria has practised medicine in 11 countries, worked through the 2014 “Snowmageddon” storm that brought Atlanta to a halt, and survived the past year’s COVID-19 pandemic crush.

Key points:

  • Half of Texas’s population is being ordered to boil water to ensure it is safe for consumption
  • Many hospital workers have remained at work because there is no heat or water at home
  • Crowded hospitals are facing shortages of water, posing risks for patients including those on dialysis

But she and some other doctors in Texas saying they have never experienced a more harrowing week than this one.

Record-setting cold weather has cut water and energy supplies to hospitals across a wide swath of Texas.

But on Friday, even as electricity and water services were resuming, many homes and some hospitals still did not have either.

Half the state’s population was still be ordered to boil water to ensure it was safe.

“We’re overwhelmed, way more than we’ve been with COVID,” Dr Kathuria, who works in several Austin-area emergency rooms, said.

Many hospital staffers have stayed in the medical facilities all week, knowing there is no heat or water at home.

At least hospitals have generators for basic electricity.

Residents fill up jugs at a water station in Texas

The unprecedented winter weather has caused a water shortage in Texas.(AP: Mikala Compton)

Some had water hauled in to fill tanks or hired water tankers. Others had running but not potable water.

Doctors in the major Texan cities of Austin, Houston and the Dallas said the lack of water was their biggest problem.

Dialysis machines do not work without water, surgery equipment cannot be sterilised, and hands cannot be washed.

Neil Gandhi, an emergency room physician and the regional medical director for the emergency departments at Houston Methodist’s seven hospitals in the area, said those facilities were at 90 per cent operating capacity by Friday afternoon.

A woman receives dialysis

Some dialysis patients have had their time on machines limited due to a lack of water.(ABC News: Stephanie Anderson)

Earlier in the week, two were able to take only emergency patients, Dr Gandhi said.

In addition, ambulances have struggled to reach people on roads that are not cleared because Texas cities have few snow ploughs and not nearly enough salt on hand.

Doctors in stand-alone emergency care locations who routinely call the 911 emergency number for ambulances to transfer patients to hospitals have had to wait more than nine hours for any to arrive — if they are available at all.

Dr Gandhi said that in Houston this week there were times when entire neighbourhoods simply did not have any emergency medical services.

Hospitals set up portable toilets. Inside, patient’s toilets were flushed by tossing in a bucket of water.

Less critical dialysis patients delayed treatment, while others limited their time on machines.

Empty shelves are seen at bakery section of a Texas supermarket

Empty shelves are seen at a supermarket in Houston amid food shortages.(Reuters: Go Nakamura)

Rural hospitals across Texas were not only trying to treat patients under tough conditions, but also serving as de facto “warming centres” for the healthy, said John Henderson, president of the Texas Organisation of Rural and Community Hospitals.

Even with warmer weather forecast for next week, there could still be a sea of broken water pipes and other damage.

“We’re worried that when the sun comes out and the temperature goes up, that it’s not necessarily the end in sight,” Dr Kathuria said.

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The death toll mounts in Texas as freezing weather leaves millions without heat and power.

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