Sun, Sep 11, 2005 - Page 6 News List

New Orleans' health care workers perform heroics

HURRICANE HEROES Thousands of health care workers stayed with patients in dark, devastated hospitals after the storm struck, while thousands more rushed in to help


Dr. Norman McSwain, right, chief of Trauma at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, works with Dr. Jeffrey Guy, left, chief of the Burn Center at Vanderbilt Hospital, in a relief effort for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina in Nashville, Tennesee on Tuesday.


Dr. Jessica Lee fought the urge to panic.

All week long, women stranded by Hurricane Katrina had been giving birth in primitive conditions at New Orleans' University Hospital, their only after-effect a colorful story to tell their children someday.

Now one was in trouble.

She was 24 and scared. She had given birth once before by Caesarean section because the baby's head was too big, and doctors believed one would be needed again. With no power or running water, the doctors couldn't safely operate, so for days they had given her drugs to delay labor.

But by Friday morning they could fool nature no longer. Labor was progressing and no rescuers were in sight.

This one isn't going to have a happy ending, Lee began to fear. Where were the helicopters?

Disasters always spawn heroes.

On Sept. 11, 2001, many of them wore dark blue uniforms that said FDNY.

On Sept. 1, 2005, many wore hospital scrubs that said MD, RN and EMT. Thousands of health care workers stayed with patients in devastated hospitals after the storm struck. Thousands more rushed in to help.

They are people like Dr. Norman McSwain, a legendary, 68-year-old Tulane University trauma surgeon who on Sept. 1 waded through fetid floodwaters to get out word that thousands of people were trapped in hospitals running out of food and water.

And Dr. Rich Tabor, a 38-year-old Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, emergency medicine physician who got partners to cover his shifts and paid US$520 out of his own pocket for a plane ticket to Louisiana, where he climbed into an airboat and went door-to-door with rescue workers.

And Barry Albertson, 42, a paramedic from Easton, Pennsylvania, who missed his 7-year-old son's first children's football game to join a caravan of ambulances making the 30-hour trip to New Orleans.

And Dr. Lee Garvey, 48, an emergency room doctor at Carolinas Medical Center who dropped everything to staff a state-of-the-art mobile hospital that provided the only trauma care for seven devastated counties in rural Mississippi.

"We're here because this is what we live to do," Garvey said, "trying to offer something to these people."

Lee's ordeal began at 6am on Sunday, Aug. 28, as the hurricane approached. The 31-year-old resident in obstetrics and gynecology wasn't summoned to work but took duty for a colleague who had a young baby and wanted to evacuate.

By 2am, with the storm in full force, half a dozen women at University had given birth, two by C-section. Things went OK until Tuesday night, when the main generator on the first floor flooded. A couple of smaller ones on upper floors were used to power a few lights and fans, but it was dark even in daytime. The temperature inside was over 38?C, Lee said.

Medical student Susan Seo scrounged food and batteries and helped carry patients down four flights of stairs to an intensive-care unit. Work once stopped for three hours as security officers ordered staff to sit on the floor while they investigated a reported hostage situation. Attempts to evacuate patients from the parking garage roof were foiled by gunfire.

"There were people shooting at the helicopters. The whole time I was like, `How come the military's not here,'" she said.

The choppers that made it through could only take two patients at a time. Sometimes they just dropped off supplies.

"At one point a helicopter dropped four boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and left," Seo said.

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