Dr. Ben deBoisblanc, 50, was the Director of Critical Care Services at Charity Hospital, in New Orleans. This interview was done in two sessions, both times at Ichiban Restaurant in Baton Rouge. Interviews were either before or after his shift at the Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where he works post-Katrina.
Saturday was the first time we realized that Katrina was taking a bead on New Orleans. That morning, Katrina intensified from a Category 2 to a Category 5. At one point 175mph winds. Just unimaginable. 175mph wind is like a tornado. It just would have scoured the earth. When they reported that Katrina had achieved 175mph winds, and the lower limit of Category Five was 155mph winds, I think a lot of us went whoa. This was the real deal.
I was living on a boat, out in the Marina. I did a little bit of preparation, with the intention that I would finish Sunday morning, then go to the hospital for the Code Gray. We have an activation team that goes into the hospital and gets locked down for the duration. I had done that a half-dozen times before. No big deal. But this one seemed a little more worrisome. Saturday night I was going to have some friends come over. I called them up and cancelled.
I went to sleep about 8:00o’clock, reading a book. About 9:30pm, I woke up. The air conditioning was off. It was hot. I said, “Son of a bitch, what’s the matter?” I realized the electricity was off. I got up and noticed that the electricity was out on the whole dock. I walked up to the harbor master’s office. He said: “We’re shutting down. We’re leaving.” I ask, “What do you mean you’re shutting down?” He says, “Doc. This one’s going to be a bad one.” I probably thought it was going to be a bad one, too, but I wasn’t ready to completely give in to the idea that I might not see my boat again.
I spent the rest of the night there, tossing and turning. I was unable to sleep. Not so much because of the heat, but because of the concern going over the scenarios in my head.
I woke up early Sunday morning. I went over some last minute details of how I wanted to prepare my boat. I started grabbing momentos. I started to wonder whether I was going to see my boat again. I knew what hurricanes had done in Florida and other places to marinas. So I grabbed up a few pictures of my kids.
I looked over and I saw a picture of my dad. My dad had been deceased for about twenty years. There was a picture of him standing next to his boat. The only picture I had like it, from when he was a younger man. I was very fond of it. I said, “Oh, I’ve got to get that picture.” I started to take it down. Then I said, “No, why I am taking this down?” I somehow reasoned that his spirit would watch over Creola. “Creola” was the name of my boat. I left his picture there, and I walked away. I thought, hell, if the boat goes down, at least he would want to go down with the ship.
I arrived at Charity around 8 or 9 in the morning. Got my activation bracelet–a little bracelet that tells people you belong there. I went up the ICU. We had been through this drill before. It turns out to be a party. People arrived with lots of food: chips and dips, hot dogs. We took over our call room, the little family area/waiting room. We put down air mattresses. The air conditioning was going. It was very comfortable.
I was there as the Medical Director. There was an attending physician there named Francesco Simeone. Francesco’s job was to focus on taking care of the patients, so I brought some work with me to do. We were getting all the news broadcasts. Everything was non-stop Katrina, bearing down on New Orleans.
We sent home a lot of family members that were staying in the hospital. Only one or two family members were allowed with each patient. We had toyed with the idea of closing down the hospital, but the hospital had been a place of refuge for the city of New Orleans for so long, that we didn’t think we could close it down. They’d done a mandatory evacuation order, but you could just sense that there were maybe a hundred thousand people that could not, would not, evacuate. The Superdome was filling up. We didn’t think we could close a hospital when there were so many people who might try to turn to the hospital as a place of sanctuary.
Sunday evening was very routine. I did a little bit of preparation. Not a lot. Mostly watched newscasts and worked on my computer.
The rain started to come down. The wind started to blow. I went and lied down in our call room.
I remember waking up about midnight. The wind blew pretty hard and the windows started to rattle. I could feel the building shake–a big, massive, concrete building that had been a civil defense shelter during the Cold War.
From 1:00am to 3:00am, we heard windows popping out of buildings and crashing to the ground. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I couldn’t tell where the windows were popping out of—our building, or the building next to us. I just knew that they were popping and crashing. It was all very exciting.
We first lost power right around daybreak. The emergency generators kicked on. For reasons I still don’t understand, the power went out again on our side of the hospital. We were plunged into darkness. There were very few windows in the ICU. The flashlights popped out. We’d done this drill a hundred times so four people ran to the bedside of a patient, grabbed a bag and started squeezing the bag. We had about 11 patients in the Medical ICU. Nine of them were on breathing machines, mechanical ventilators–all of them very sick. Each person would grab a bag. I went around and I checked with each one. I went from bed to bed to bed, checking to make sure everybody was OK.
I remember getting around to bed 11, to Hunter Reeves. Hunter, this 23-year-old kid, he had Good Pasture’s Syndrome. Good Pasture’s Syndrome is a disease that causes you to have hemorrhaging in your lungs, and kidney failure. He was sent to us maybe 2 or 3 days before the hurricane, from a small hospital in Independence. They sent him to us because we’re an academic medical center. Hunter was on a ventilator with, on a breathing machine with a tube down his throat, on a very high oxygen concentration because of his lung failure. His respiratory failure was very severe. He was also getting dialysis.
There was a woman, Celeste Widell, who was a respiratory therapist. I said, Celeste, are you OK? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Fine. I left. Came back about twenty minutes later. Are you OK, are you OK—yeah yeah yeah. Then I got to Celeste. Why don’t you let me give you a break? No, I’m fine. Alright. Came back an hour later. Got up to Hunter’s room and I said, Celeste, you’re still here? Why don’t you take a break? Let me give you a break. No, I’m OK.
It kind of gave me a little chill. I realized, whoa, Celeste wasn’t going to let anyone mess with Hunter. That was her patient. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I really think that it had something to do with the fact that Celeste was a single mom. Her only son, her everything, Christopher, had died the year before. Sudden cardiac death, during football practice. Very sad. She was devastated by that. Took a long time before she could come back to work. This was a chance for her to feel like a mother again. A protector. No one, me included, was going to get in the way of that. I think it was people taking ownership for individual patients was why we did as well as we did.
The eyewall passed the hospital probably 8:00am. The building shook in the face of the wind. The windows rattled. The windows above us blew out. The rain poured in. The rain water soaked down to the acoustic ceiling tiles. The tiles saturated like wet sponges. They started falling off the ceiling, right on top of the patients. The light fixtures fell out of the ceiling. It was a very exciting time. We were in the dark. The electricity had gone out. So Monday morning was just an adrenaline rush. We could see outside signs and trees being blown down. Just the ferocity of it all.
The rest of Monday was a struggle to keep patients alive. Most of the equipment in the ICU continued to operate, although it was alarming that it was on battery backup. We bagged the patients—actually squeezing the bags—because the ventilators were not happy very long on battery backup. We could see on the other side of the hospital that there was still electricity. Our side was black.
A few of our residents found some extension cords and strung together 300 feet. We plugged eight ventilators into this, using surge protectors and all these little multi-port extension cords. We stretched it as far as we could toward the other side of the hospital. It’s a huge hospital. We got to the middle; we couldn’t quite get to the other side. We plugged in to the only outlet that we could reach with our extension cords that had electricity: the Coke machine. We were able to power up a few of our ventilators that way and get back into business.
We had about an inch of water in the ICU. We started to clean up. Mopping up an ICU with an inch of water is a big deal, so we said, gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a wet vac. We called our housekeepers, and they brought over a wet vac. They started wet vacing up. Well, they had a long extension on the wet vac, and started in the central hallway, and started moving toward the ICU, cleaning up the water. At about 2:00pm, the power went out for our ventilators. The extension cord power went out–only to find out that the janitors had unplugged our extension cord to plug in a wet vac, not realizing what it went to.
We plugged back in. We had power, via that extension cord, for most of the day.
We did have small portable generators. They were kept in the storage facility at the hospital, but they themselves did not have fuel. The fuel was not stored on site. So we had these emergency generators in boxes that were totally useless. They were sitting in the hallway. We had plans, if we had had fuel, to bring them out to the fire escape and fire them up, and we could have plugged our extension cords in there instead of running all the way across the hospital. But we weren’t too worried about it at the time. We did have this one outlet that was working more often than not.
The patients were doing OK. We experimented with different types of artificial ventilators. Some of them were gas driven. Gas-driven works on a compressed oxygen source. We had oxygen stored in liquid oxygen cylinders. That continued to work throughout Katrina. The actual compressed air requires a compressor. That failed when the electricity went out. As long as we still had power on the other side—most things seemed to work. The suctions still seemed to work.
By Monday afternoon, the telephone service grew weak. The cell networks were overloaded. They were still working, but it was hard to get an outside line. You got a busy signal all the time. The water pressure was still on, but it grew weak as well. Systems were starting to fail.
Monday was so adrenaline filled that when the wind started to die down, we started high-fiving each other. We just survived something really bad. The streets were dry. We thought we’d be going home Tuesday morning. We still had our extension cords plugged in, just kind of powering up our side of the hospital.
Monday night, the power went out again. We chased the extension cord—it was still plugged in, and we realized that the power was out in the whole hospital. We didn’t realize then what had happened. As the sun came up Tuesday morning, we realized that the city was flooding from every direction. That’s when the story really begins.
I remember waking up around 3:00am. When the sound of all the electrical equipment goes dead—you know how white noise puts you to sleep? The absence of white noise wakes you up. When everything got quiet, I immediately snapped to, ran in the ICU, and started the drill all over again. Squeeze the bags, try to troubleshoot the extension cord, figure out what’s happening. This time, it was obvious the other side of the hospital was black.
The radio said something about a levee break. Not until sunrise did we realize that the city was flooding from every direction. The generators, or their connections, or circuitry, or whatever, had been submerged. We figured we weren’t going to get out that day. We still had aspirations of getting out soon.
I went down to a meeting that we had of our emergency operations. We discussed our evacuation plans. We were told that we were going to leave the hospital that morning. FEMA was due to arrive with trucks, boats, whatever, to evacuate all of the patients. When they arrived, we were to stand down. I remember saying that well, I’m sorry, but most of these people who are going to be working for FEMA are not critical care personnel. They’re not critical care physicians. Some of them may be nurses, some of them may not be, some may be doctors, some may not be. We are struggling to keep these patients alive. We’re trained to do this. We know the patients. And we are struggling to keep them alive. I don’t think it’s a good idea to turn these patients over. With no more resources than we have, I think we ought to go with the patients. “Oh, no, no, no, no. That’s not the way these things operate. When they show up here, you’re just to stand down.”
We prepared for FEMA to arrive. We went back to our respective areas and started packing up the patients. We taped them to spine boards. We created medical records. We put that in a little plastic bag and taped that to the forearm of each patient.
Monday night, we had lost our internet. We had already lost any television communication. We still had portable radios. Most of the telephones didn’t work. Ours still worked. But every number we called had a busy signal. The Police, the Fire Department, Health and Hospitals, the Governor’s Office, State Police, the National Guard—everybody had a busy number. We figured the circuits were blown. Very few people could get cell phone calls out. Occasionally someone could get an outside call. On Sunday we all had five bars. By Tuesday most of us had none. A few of us had one or two. We lost our internet, so we had difficulty communicating with the outside world. In fact, we could not communicate with the outside world. We couldn’t even communicate with University Hospital, which was right down the street.
All of the infusion pumps, defillibrators, monitors, and batteries started to fail. The infusion pumps control the rate of patients’ medications, so nurses went back to counting drops again. It’s a skill that a lot of people had forgotten. We didn’t have water to bathe our patients. More importantly, we didn’t have water to flush the toilets.
The first thing people do when there’s no water to flush a toilet is run to the bathroom, because you don’t want to be the last guy in there. There were probably 1300 people in the hospital. There was about 300 and some odd patients. There’s 600 staff, and visitors that stayed with the patients, and a lot of the staff, had dependents, had their own families with them. So we had about 1300 people in there. Within hours, the bathrooms were just untenable. There was solid liquid waste in every commode, and no way to flush them, so they became off-limits. And of course people do what they’ve got to do. They started urinating in stairwells, in plastic bottles. They defecated in cardboard boxes. They did whatever they had to do. Eventually we got some porto-lets. I’m not sure where those came from. They must have been in some warehouse somewhere, because those showed up. I’m not sure how they even got to our floor, because the elevators weren’t working. But we had one on our floor. We also had little plastic bags, and little bedside commodes that people could use, so that was an improvement. The stench was horrible.
The sun came out. It got very, very hot. The east side of the hospital, where the NICU was unbearable, and the windows wouldn’t open. We put chairs through the windows and created our own ventilation. I think other people did that around the hospital as well.
The inner hallways had no windows. The walls were a little cool to the touch, but the air was very, very humid, so you got all this condensation that would form on the walls. Walking down the hallway in pitch black, you could just feel the air and the stench. You touch the wall and it was like being in a dungeon.
Needless to say, FEMA didn’t come Tuesday morning. FEMA didn’t come on Tuesday afternoon, didn’t come on Wednesday. Wednesday afternoon. Thursday. To make a long story short, FEMA didn’t come until Friday afternoon. But we didn’t know it at the time. We were expecting this evacuation. So at first, our posture was really, let’s wait. Let’s wait to be rescued.
In retrospect, that was a mistake. Waiting for someone to help you is always a mistake. It was a mistake for several reasons. One, is it wastes valuable time. But two, it creates a sense of helplessness. From that is borne despair and fear. Having a mission is very empowering. Having a goal distracts you, keeps you from thinking about what else is going on around you.
So Tuesday, we just waited. Morale started to tank. No one had bathed in a couple of days. We didn’t have water. We didn’t have electricity; we were squeezing the bags on the ventilators. The back-up generators that we had didn’t have fuel.
We realized that we weren’t going to get out on Tuesday. Rumblings started in the ICU. That nobody cared about us, that we’d been forgotten.
We continued to take people from the community. Patients, family members, and healthy people continued to come to the hospital. At some point, they just overburdened the system. We did turn some people away. But when you see kids and old ladies, there’s nothing you can do but accept them. We continued to increase our numbers well into Wednesday or Thursday. Those people were processed down in the emergency room– which had been moved from the ground floor, up to the second floor, to the auditorium–then vertically transported to other areas of the hospital, carrying each one up the stairs. Some cases, 12 flights of stairs. That’s where the SICU (Surgical Intensive Care Unit) was, on the 12th floor.
Food was not an issue on Tuesday or Wednesday. The hospital had enough food for 48 hours. That was the disaster plan. We had ravioli. We did get food airdropped toward the end of the week, if you call Spam food. Vienna sausages. Granola bars. And Dasani water. So a little slice of Spam, on a granola bar, with a little sprig of Dasani water was just perfect. We didn’t have good food, but I don’t think food was on the minds of most people. We had just enough to keep us alive, and we had bottled water.
We didn’t have any water to wash our hands. We did have a lot of Purell, which I now call liquid gold. It was the only modicum of sanitation we had. You could clean your hands with it. You could mousse your hair with it. You could use it for deodorant.
Tuesday night was unbearable. No way to get any sleep in the hospital because it was so hot and humid. Someone discovered that the roof was a great place to be. So several of us went up to the roof.
It was a starry, starry night. Cool, a little bit of a breeze blowing. No clouds in the sky. First time I saw stars in New Orleans in my lifetime. It was an eerie feeling. You could look out and see the reflection of the stars on the water. You could make out the outlines of buildings, that the whole city was underwater, like a modern day Atlantis. Every now and then you saw off in the distance a flashlight, or heard the siren on a police car on the elevated interstate. But really there was nobody around the hospital.
Looking up at the heavens, seeing the starlight on the water below, it was a little bit like being in Venice, except in the country, because there was no light pollution. It was quiet. There was something so comforting about it, the solitude, the heavens above. But you kept saying to yourself: there’s something wrong with this picture. Because you could see there were all these unlit buildings around you. And you just knew what a paradox this was, the fact that it was so comforting, yet so distressing at the same time. It was like being sandwiched between the heavens above and the hell below. It would be like being in Iraq, in a firestorm, and then being able to step out of that, for just a couple of hours, into Eden. Knowing you had to go back in.
The rodents were also escaping the flood waters, so there was the occasional rat running across your mattress. It would wake you up, but it didn’t bother you. I think they realized something was happening to their hometown, too.
The sun came up and it was another hot day. We were told that FEMA was coming. Shortly after our morning meeting, we heard on the radio that we had been evacuated. Morale hit an all-time low.
We heard reports that there were armed gangs. Looting. Lawlessness. People became fearful. People thought that hospital was going to be stormed by armed gangs looking for drugs, looking for whatever. You’ve subsequently learned that most of those reports were just vicious rumors. That there was some lawlessness, but it wasn’t on the scale that was reported. The total sum of people murdered in the Superdome I think was zero. The same is true at the convention center. The only dead bodies there were people who had either died outside and were dragged in. A couple of drug overdoses, but there was little violence. There was some looting. But it wasn’t on the scale that was reported.
Those reports made people fearful. We had nurses who started to cry that we were going to die there, that nobody cared about us. We’d been forgotten. That what we should do is leave. That was the lowest point I think in the whole experience for everybody.
We realized we had to do something. It was a mistake to sit around and wait to be rescued. If we were going to get out of there, we were going to have to get ourselves out.
We formulated several plans, almost in parallel, of how we were going to evacuate people. The medical intensive care unit had its own plan. We couldn’t call anybody—not the police, the fire department. We couldn’t call anybody–except for one person who answered his phone. That was Wolf Blitzer on CNN. One of the residents was able to get a live feed on Wolf Blitzer’s show and let him know that we had not been evacuated. We were still there and we had all these sick patients.
The President of a helicopter company picked up on that and called us on this phone. He told us that he would send us helicopters if we could find a place for him to land. He was already doing evacuations at Tulane Hospital. You could see there were helicopters everywhere. Hundreds of helicopters buzzing around the city.
We went around looking for places for the helicopters to land. The Superdome, we thought, was under siege. Wasn’t, but we didn’t know that. That was the only commercial heliport in the area. We looked around at University Hospital. I went down the street by boat, talked to them down there. They thought the building could not support any helicopters. No one could land on top of Charity Hospital because it’s an uneven rooftop. We learned then that helicopters were landing on top of a parking garage over at Tulane Hospital. Someone thought we could use that to evacuate our own patients.
We formulated this plan to evacuate our four sickest patients. About this same time, I remember walking down the hallway and kicking the boxed-up generators. How could we have generators but not have fuel? Then one of the respiratory therapists said, “Well Doc, I’ll getcha some fuel.” I said, “Well, how are you going to do that, Nelson?” Nelson Paige. He said, “Doc, I’ve got a Mississippi credit card.” I just dismissed him. I didn’t even think about it. He came back about an hour later with a jerry can full of diesel. I said, “Nelson, where did that come from?” He said, “I bought it with my Mississippi credit card.” I said, “Nelson, what’s a Mississippi credit card?” He takes out a hammer and a screw driver. He and a couple of other people had waded around the hospital, found some stalled trucks, and just banged open the fuel caps and siphoned out fuel for the generators. We were able to power up these little generators, which did take a load off of some of our personnel who had been bagging for hours.
Hunter Reeves was in bad shape. I think Hunter was last dialyzed on Friday or Saturday. It was Wednesday. One of the things that happens when your kidneys fail is your potassium level goes way up. We had no idea what his potassium level was. Things were, to say the least, desperate for Hunter. We were barely able to keep him alive. We had a couple of other patients we were barely able to keep alive.
So, we took Hunter. We also took this kid who had lymphoma, kidney failure, liver failure, and hypotension. We took two patients from the neurosurgical ICU who were in bad shape: both of them had closed head injuries. One of them had had a pulmonary embolism. Both were very sick and on breathing machines.
So this guy said he’d send four helicopters and we decided to take those four patients. He said, “I can get you helicopters over there. We’re going to leave from the New Orleans International Airport, we’re gonna have a helicopter come every fifteen minutes, but you’ve got to get them over there [to the Tulane Parking Garage].” So we were like, how are we going to get them over there? The water was about five or six feet deep between us and the hospital. We had seen some big National Guard trucks negotiating the flood waters. But they weren’t around.
Somebody went out and found a National Guardsman who had a truck, and said look, you’ve got to come help us. He said OK. We brought the first four patients down the stairs, all six or seven flights of stairs, and loaded them in the back of this truck.
We proceed to Tulane’s parking garage in the flood waters. The sun was getting low. Halfway there, Hunter’s blood pressure dropped. His oxygenation level dropped. We made an empiric diagnosis that he’d collapsed his lung. He’d already collapsed his right lung. He had a tube in his side. So halfway over there, using flashlights, we put a tube into his left lung. What you do is make a cut about two inches long on the side of his chest with a scalpel and poke a big clamp through his chest wall into the space on the side of his lung. It’s a surgical procedure. We did that without any anesthetic. We didn’t have any anesthetic or any sedation, so people were holding Hunter down. Thank God he doesn’t remember this. We did this surgical procedure on him in the back of a truck in the middle of swamp with flashlights. It was just the craziest thing. But his blood pressure came up. So did his oxygenation.
We got to the garage. We waited there a long time, under instruction from the people who were operating the garage. They said, “Wait down here until your helicopters get here.” In all the confusion, the helicopters came and went. They didn’t realize that they were our helicopters because they were evacuating their own patients.
At sunset, we were able to get Hunter onto a helicopter. It was an air ambulance: it had a critical care nurse, and a critical care technician. We felt really good about that. He flew off. To make a long story short, he survived.
We had the other three patients in the back of this big truck. It’s dark. The commercial pilot said they can’t fly after dark. They don’t have any way to see unlit buildings and towers. We were screwed. I thought I was going to have to bring these three patients back to Charity Hospital. We waited. And waited. It was probably 10:00 pm, 11 pm. When I found out that the helicopters had come and gone and had taken other patients, I was pissed off.
I was planning to bring the patients back, but there was this guy over there, Jim Holland, who was able to get a Blackhawk helicopter to land. These military helicopters used night vision equipment and they had no problems negotiating the dark. But they didn’t have any medical technicians. We had to fly with the patients.
As we lifted off, I saw the city below me with all of these beautiful stars just shining off of the water. It was a very weird feeling. The noise was deafening. I couldn’t speak for three weeks after that, just from screaming over the roar of these helicopters. We flew for about fifteen minutes.
When we landed and the doors opened, it was like the Emerald City. There were lights everywhere. I couldn’t figure out where we were. I could tell I was on this interstate somewhere, and I later surmised it was out near Clearview, on the 10. I could see ambulances everywhere. All these resources and no coordination. I said, “Show me who’s in charge here.” They took me over to a guy who was an ambulance driver. I said, “You’re in charge?” He said, “I guess so.” No command and control structure. So I said, “Look, I’ve got all these critically ill patients we need to get out.” We loaded them on the ambulances. We wound up sending one of the docs with one of the patients. I said, “How long have you been here?” He said, “Three days.” I asked: “What have you been doing here for three days?” He said, “We’ve been waiting for patients.” They had just been sitting there waiting for patients to somehow get there from wherever they were.
After we offloaded our patients, we jumped back in the helicopter and flew back downtown. We wound up getting back to Charity Hospital sometime around 1:00am.
I slept on the roof.
I went down to the morning meeting and shared the story of how we evacuated our first four patients. Up until that point, the administration’s policy had been, let’s just wait. Remember that the decision to take those patients out was made by us, by the NICU, not by the administration. So when we shared our success of the evacuation of those four patients, and I told them that this was a resource we could use again, if we wanted to, that was embraced.
Three of us went over Thursday morning and talked to the Tulane Hospital administration—actually the HCA administration, about bringing over all of our critically-ill patients and evacuating them. We got a thumbs-up. We were given instructions to bring them all over at one time.
We gathered up all of the fire department boats and National Guard trucks we could find. We loaded patients into the back. We brought them over to Tulane’s parking garage. We set up a mini-intensive care unit on the roof-top, or just below the rooftop, just below where the helicopters were landing. We had 30 some-odd patients up there, all the one’s that had respiratory failure, being bagged by hand, by nurses, therapists, and residents.
Watching all of these doctors deliver care without technology was a wonderful, wonderful thing. I struggled to understand at the time: why was it so moving? I think there were several reasons. Everywhere you looked there were outward signs of compassion: of touching, of holding, of petting. Emotions that I would have thought would have been reserved for a kinder, gentler time. I would have thought that, in the midst of all this chaos, people would just be running around doing things, and wouldn’t have time to stop, to talk to a patient, to stop and pet a patient. But just the opposite occurred. Everywhere you looked, there were nurses and doctors petting patients. Men don’t do a lot of hugging, but there were men hugging each other, patting each other on the back, and I said, gee, why is this? And then it was so obvious to me, it was almost like one of those duh moments, that for a nurse or a doctor to express compassion to a patient, to touch a patient, it’s therapeutic not just for the patient, but for the caregiver. I think we were all scared. Not scared that we were going to die, but scared because we were trusted to take care of these patients, and honestly, we didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Because we were scared, we needed that touch, and we got it by giving it.
I didn’t realize how much technology shrouds the patient. We cover them in this veneer of technology and insulate them from ourselves. They become diagnoses, the guy with Good Pasture’s, the woman with the stroke, the man with the appendicitis. When we lost that technology, it was almost like a little blossom erupted into this beautiful flower of a human being. We discovered the humanism in medicine again. And that very act seemed to make us more human. Made us vulnerable. Put us on the same level as our patients. No better, no worse, just different. Different responsibilities. But all equal.
It was interesting to watch the most senior physicians, our Chief of Neurosurgery, a Boyd professor, the highest academic rank you can achieve in the LSU system, sitting on the concrete, squeezing a bag on a patient, petting her on the forehead, not asking for anyone to help him, to relieve him, doing what he was moved to do. That day, that Thursday on the rooftop, was singularly the absolute pinnacle of my experience during Katrina. It was just a beautiful thing to watch.
We stayed up there with our patients a lot longer than I hoped, because of problems getting them evacuated. We finally got the last patients off about midnight. I lied down to nap sometime around 1:00am. It was too late to go back to Charity, so we just slept on the concrete, on top of the parking garage there. Most of the Tulane people had been evacuated by this time. Late in the day on Thursday, we started to send out some of our doctors and nurses. Since we were getting lower on patients, they became a liability—more mouths to feed, more people to take care of. We sent them out with a patient. They got on a helicopter and just cared for a patient, and didn’t come back. Some of them though, you couldn’t get rid of them. You’d send them out, and they’d come right back. Those are the people I want to go to battle with.
At 3:00am, I snapped to. There was this deafening roar moving through the building. I opened my eyes and the sky was bright red. In that moment between sleep and wakefulness, I thought, oh my god, they’re bombing us. I thought that the Feds decided that they couldn’t fix it, so they’d nuke it. We jumped up and realized that a plant right on the waterfront exploded. What a weird moment that was. As if the city wasn’t broken enough, now it was burning. I was heartbroken.
The sun came up. As if to add insult to injury, the wind blew smoke from the fire right to the parking garage. It smelled like petrochemicals. Fortunately, it didn’t last long.
About 7:00am, we waded back to the hospital. I talked to some of the administrators. We still had some red-tag patients left, but they weren’t critical. There were other critically-ill in the hospital that could not be evacuated by land—broken femurs, and the like, so we loaded them up on boats and brought them back to Tulane’s parking garage.
Everyone was gone. There was a single helicopter on the rooftop, a police helicopter. I begged and pleaded with this guy. He managed to get on his radio and get Chinooks to land on the rooftop. They took away the last of the patients.
There was a young kid that had come over Thursday night. His name was Ross Kraft. He was a young Marine who was on leave from Iraq. When the storm rolled through, he ran to New Orleans, got on the first helicopter he could get on, and flew in to the belly of the beast to help out. He single-handedly provided security for us, and did some other things, too. There was nobody around. There was still this sense that this wasn’t a secure environment, although I personally never saw any lawlessness. This guy could hot wire trucks. We actually had to have a vehicle take patients from the ramp, where the boats would offload, all the way to the rooftop. He was able to break into a truck, or something, using his Marine Corps skills.
So we flew out about fifteen patients on Friday. Beginning about 10:00am, finishing sometime in the early afternoon, with a big Chinook carrying the last of the patients off. At about 3:00pm, we returned to the hospital.
FEMA had arrived.
They were like cowboys. They had an armed guard with a shotgun, riding up on the bow, and these were big, giant airboats. They came in there like the cavalry. Dozens at a time. With tractor-trailer trucks.
There was a long line of employees getting on to these boats. Everybody was really excited that we were leaving. The ambulatory patients, the psychiatric patients, were being loaded into big tractor-trailer trucks. The water had dropped by a foot, so there was only about four feet of water outside the hospital. You could drive a big tractor-trailer truck there.
Within 2 hours, the entire hospital was empty.
I caught a boat over to a staging area on Loyola Avenue. I found a bus that was heading up to Baton Rouge. The sun started to set. Everybody on the bus, they were all of my colleagues, employees of the hospital, were hoopla-ing, very excited, and I remember feeling very melancholy, that I had probably left Charity Hospital for the last time. I was so proud of what Charity Hospital had done. Charity Hospital had served for, since, as an institution since the 1700s. That building itself had been there since 1939, serving the underserved of the city of New Orleans with great distinction. For a lot of people it was the only resource they ever had. Born there, received all their health care there, died there. And then it died, doing exactly what it was supposed to do—taking care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves. And did it in a wonderfully heroic way. I remember feeling very sad, sitting back, in my bus seat, looking out over the marsh as we drove towards Baton Rouge on the interstate, watching the sunset, thinking that the sun was setting on an era. Things would be different for me, going forward.
We were brought to the Belmont Hotel, which is a little deserted hotel. We had sandwiches, and a place to sleep. I actually didn’t sleep there, I knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone who had a grandmother who had just gone into a nursing home, whose house was abandoned, and I wound up sleeping on a mattress on the floor, in some stranger’s house.
I picked up my cell phone. I had five bars. I called my nephew and said, “Come get me!” He asked, “Where are you?” I said, “I don’t know!” I knew I was in Baton Rouge, but I had no idea where.
He picked me up. He said, “Ben, I just want to tell you I think Creola’s floating.” I said, “No, impossible.” He showed me a satellite picture, and sure enough, it looked like Creola was still alive. We went to Madisonville and talked some guys into giving us a boatride across the lake. We went in to New Orleans, and sure enough, there was Creola, floating like a cork. I truly was teary-eyed when I saw her floating there. I got on board, and I just walked around, and touched her. She had a few bumps and bruises, and within five minutes we had the engine fired up and cast off and we were out of there.
I wound up in Baton Rouge. I didn’t have a home to go to. My kids–one of them sent off to Houston, one of them up to Natchitoches. I needed to make some money for the university, so I wound up in Baton Rouge, and this woman, Nadine Russell, had told a friend of mine that she wanted to help out some refugees, and he told me I should go talk to her. Never knew her. I introduced myself. She was very lovely, very charming. Said sure, you can have a room. I’ve been there for two and a half months.
How do I like being a boarder? Well, it’s not a tough gig. She lives in a 10,000 square foot house. I have my own maid. I have my own cook. I have a warm bed. Live in the country club. It could be worse. She’s a very lovely lady. She has, she’s become a friend, a confidante, my very own psychoanalyst who shrinks me anytime I need it. Been good.
Some people have been embittered by Katrina. Some people are angry. They’re angry over their sense of loss. Some people have lost a lot more than I have. But I have found the whole experience to be wonderful. It has reconnected me with what’s important in life. It’s made me a much better doctor. A much more caring physician. I think some of what I felt on that bus ride was a little bit of a disappointment that it was over. I did enjoy being tested. Disasters don’t make character, they expose character, and I was witness to so many incredible acts of heroism. There’s so much character in the people around me. There were very, very few disappointments. A few people, but, on the whole, I was quite proud of all the work people did.
For me, Katrina was a wonderful experience. I don’t know any other way to say it. I could not have paid to have that kind of experience. So many people sent me emails saying, I’m so sorry for what you went through, it must have been so terrible. And that’s wrong. It wasn’t that at all. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life.
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