Saturday, September 3, 2005

A most difficult heroism

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, words fail. The scale of the Gulf Coast disaster is truly massive, and the situation in New Orleans is a natural disaster compounded by a human one.

I have been thinking about those New Orleans hospital workers who left their families last Sunday, fully expecting to ride out the approaching hurricane while caring for the patients who needed them. By week’s end, however, the patients and caregivers of one hospital had become “almost indistinguishable,” according to the Los Angeles Times. [1] The newspaper reported the hospital had become “a chamber of horrors” with sewage backed up in sinks, its basement morgue under water, and a body bag in the ED. One employee was quoted as saying, “Workers are to the point of collapse.”

When the hurricane intensified Sunday night, hospital staff moved patients into hallways to protect them from the shattering windows. When the power failed, the hospital’s generators came on, but the rising water stopped the generators, and the hospital was without the electricity that runs ventilators, CT scanners, computers and air conditioning. Patients used 02 tanks to smash windows for fresh air. An internal evacuation moved patients to an upper floor. By Thursday hospital staff were in the third day of hand-ventilating patients. The National Guard started, then stopped an external evacuation because of sniper fire. Other rescue workers eventually followed, and aluminum boats were packed with patient stretchers and IVs as nurses accompanied patients to the Superdome and to the airport, which served as staging areas for evacuation out of the area. By Thursday 1,800 patients had been evacuated from New Orleans hospitals – with another 3,000 waiting for evacuation.

Hospital staff have families too – were they safe? With so many communications problems, the hospital staff were unable to talk with their loved ones. What must have been the worry, the fatigue, and the demands on doctors and hospital employees as they remained with the sick in those wasted facilities without the ability to provide sanitary or adequate care?

There have been many dramatic photos of the Coast Guard rescuing hundreds of people from rooftops and attic windows. The helicopters worked, allowing such heroic action. But medical equipment did not work. Indeed, the buildings themselves failed. That required a different kind of heroism by the caregivers of New Orleans. They struggled without rest to keep patients as safe as possible without equipment that is basic to proper care.

I have not seen any dramatic photos of life saving within the hospitals, comparable to the photos of Coast Guard rescuers. But the work of hospital people represented a different kind of heroism, one of the most difficult kind.

[1] “Hospital Descends into Misery,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2005.

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