Editors’ note: When a disaster strikes—whether manmade or natural—we are wrenched from our normal existence into another realm entirely. The petty concerns of daily life fade from sight in the wake of destruction and death.
For the practitioner of medicine, this is a time of great challenge to demonstrate the highest ideals of medicine. The people of the Gulf Coast must now face a dawn where the life they knew is gone and must be built anew. In this issue we’re proud to include the memoirs of two New Orleans physicians who worked through this catastrophe.
For more information on how you can help with the recovery effort, visit www.hospitalmedicine.org.
Despite the best preparations and planning, many aspects of managing a physician practice change rapidly, and many new problems arise immediately following a disaster. Below, we present our experiences as a large hospitalist program in a tertiary-care referral center during the days before and the seven days after Hurricane Katrina, a category IV storm, devastated New Orleans.
Ochsner Clinic Foundation (OCF) is an integrated medical institution with more than 700 physicians and 24 clinics throughout Southeast Louisiana, including Northshore and Baton Rouge. For nearly 60 years, Ochsner has cared for residents in the greater New Orleans communities at the Ochsner Main Campus, which includes a multispecialty clinic, a 500-bed hospital, and residency training programs. The Main Campus is located by the Mississippi River at the parish line between Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish—areas protected from flooding under the levee system.
The Hospitalist Program at the Ochsner Main Campus has 18 physicians and four nurse practitioners. Approximately 60% of our patients are managed by Internal Medicine Residency teaching services and the rest by staff physicians. Prior to the landing of Hurricane Katrina, we cared for 60% of the hospitalized patients. Our past hurricane experience led us to develop a two-team system for disasters. Team A has four hospitalists who are required to stay on campus;
Team B is available within a week later to relieve Team A.
We tracked Hurricane Katrina following its exit from the Florida area. The decision analysis for our essential medical team was based on the category of the hurricane, staff location, and projected path. On Saturday, August 27, we were informed that Hurricane Katrina was reaching category V status and expected to hit New Orleans early Monday morning. This unexpected arrival required us to mobilize the hurricane emergency preparedness team rapidly. Hence both teams A and B were requested to remain on premise—preferably without family and pets. On the facility side, we had four generators on site and started to request other generators from around the country on the news of changing course of the hurricane.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 28:
The Day before Katrina Landed
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city for the first time in history. At Ochsner, all essential personnel were expected to report to their stations by 7 p.m. The arrival of the hurricane gave little time to our staff to arrange alternative living arrangements for their significant others and pets. Consequently many non-medical dependents and pets arrived at the facility even though we didn’t have adequate supplies to be self-sufficient for more than a few days. Many expected our organization to have ample resources to accommodate all needs—food, shelter, and support. A hurricane disaster phone line was created to update the status of OCF following the hurricane.
MONDAY, AUGUST 29:
Katrina Lands in New Orleans
OCF lost power in the early morning of August 29. Our facility sustained water and roof damage on the top floors of the hospital and unexpected ceiling glass breaks in the walkways. The howling of the intense wind created an ominous feeling among all of those sheltered in the facility. Fortunately, only minor flooding occurred around the institution.
In contrast, major flooding was reported throughout metropolitan New Orleans—especially in New Orleans East and surrounding low-lying parishes. Major wind damage was seen in buildings in the central business district, and 100% of the power was out in that area.
Downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter were dry thanks to the pumping system. Disturbingly, though, breaches in the levee system protecting New Orleans were reported in the 17th Street Canal.
By Monday afternoon, our entire facility was running on emergency generators, which provided energy only for essential equipment and left the institution with no air-conditioning, minimal lighting, and no plumbing. Physicians used flashlights to see patients, and the rooms became unbearably hot and humid; the heat index outside was 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
All regular communications went off service, including telephone lines, cell phones, and outside pagers. Fortunately OCF had invested in Spectralink phones in the past few years; this internal, antenna-based phone system continued to function. We were even able to dial long-distance intermittently. Our information system also went down, but we kept generator power for intermittent use of the Internet and Intranet to allow our employees to access information and contact with the outside world. At night—from the towers of our hospital—it was strange to see our former city of lights in total darkness.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 30:
Hurricane Aftermath Day 1
Reports of catastrophic flooding and heroic rooftop rescues in New Orleans East and other parishes were announced on the radio and via the Internet. Unfortunately the levee breach at the 17th Street Canal became uncontrolled, and water began flowing from Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans, ultimately flooding 80% of the city of New Orleans. The Superdome and the Convention Center began to fill with thousands of refugees.
The lack of electricity, inadequate food and water supplies, overcrowding, lack of adequate sanitary conditions, and—later—security concerns exponentially created a humanitarian crisis. We were devastated by the plight of our fellow New Orleans residents, whose only crime was, largely, being too poor to evacuate. Approximately 300,000 people never evacuated, and this posed an interminable challenge for city, state, and federal governments. Unfortunately the acts of a few heartless gangs tarnished the beautiful and friendly image of the Big Easy.
At Ochsner we began to conserve our resources because of the commitment to care for more than 500 people onsite. Our dietary department provided approximately 1,600 meals daily, working in hot and sweaty conditions. In the hospital the heat began to take a physical toll on everyone. We also suffered the psychological toll of not knowing what had happened to our families, friends, and belongings. We lost the ability to run most laboratory studies. We concentrated our efforts in preserving human lives with only basic means.
With no working elevators, navigating 11 floors of the hospital was a challenge for all. Our survival tactics included not just adequate fluid hydration, but electrolyte replacement. Unexpectedly, we discovered that OCF had invested in a deep-well water system separate
from the county water supply in the hospital. Thus the hospital continued to have water for at least the first three floors. The cool well water provided much-needed refreshing showers and maintained adequate sanitary conditions.
One of our hospitalists evacuated from OCF (along with several of our team’s family members) to Houston. On their way, they passed downed power-lines, a daiquiri shop in flames, and cars carrying boats on their roofs into New Orleans to help rescue stranded people.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 31:
Hurricane Aftermath Day 2
Conditions in downtown New Orleans became increasing dire with rising floodwater, hunger, thirst, and reports of looting and unrest. Rumors started to spread about the status and safety of OCF. One stated that OCF had looted a nearby Wal-Mart for food and supplies even though, in fact, senior executives of Wal-Mart personally inventoried the items and generously donated them to our institution.
There were also rumors about looters approaching from downtown. Family members outside the city were urging our employees to leave because of the danger of continued flooding and civil unrest. OCF administrators (under the leadership of the CEO Patrick Quinlan, MD, President and COO Warner Thomas, MD, and Medical Director Richard Guthrie, MD) actively addressed these issues to stop the rumors with scheduled and mandatory open forums. During the next few days, OCF was in a lock-down mode with the National Guard and our own security department providing security.
Not knowing the capability of our facility in this time of extreme uncertainly, we proceeded to discharge and move patients to other centers, such as Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston and Summit Hospital in Baton Rouge via both helicopter and ambulance.
Simultaneously we focused on patients who were stable and ready for discharge to increase our organization capacity to create a plan for providing resource for both the east and west banks of the Mississippi River.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 1:
Hurricane Aftermath Day 3
With the city of New Orleans under marshal law, OCF continued in lock-down mode. During the aftermath, a high priority was to contact all the evacuated employees. An employee outreach program was implemented in which each department accounted for the whereabouts of all personnel. As for our hospitalist program, we started to meet twice daily immediately after the hurricane to address concerns of emergency department volumes, maintain open communications, provide mutual psychological support, and foster a spirit of teamwork. During these meetings we believed that our department had cemented a bond that could not be created in normal circumstances. Our efforts through the storm and the unimaginable adversity were nothing short of extraordinary.
Our medical colleagues in Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans faced unprecedented challenges caring for patients with minimal supplies. We heard reports of doctors giving each other IV hydration and medical personnel bagging ventilator patients in shifts. With no communication except the Internet, they resorted to e-mailing CNN for help.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 2:
Hurricane Aftermath Day 4
President Bush arrived to visit New Orleans and other devastated areas in the Gulf region. With the National Guard moving in to provide security and relief efforts, Mayor Nagin declared the day a turning point for the city. After the hurricane, it was uncertain how many patients would require medical care in the community. From the Hurricane Ivan experience in Pensacola, Fla., we were advised that 10 days after the disaster, one could anticipate a doubling of the highest emergency department volume for several weeks.
We were uncertain that the evacuation of the whole city could provide such volume. To offer quality clinical care and remain in sound mind under such conditions, we hospitalists unanimously agreed to care for our patients 24/7 in weekly rotation. Our hospital census during this period was at 60% of usual and the admission was running at 40% of normal. We decreased the residents from three members per team to two in order to provide a five-day rotation of three teams. We utilized the staging center of Ochsner Baton Rouge to organize our employees and provide transportation to and from New Orleans. Employees were discouraged from driving in
their own vehicles due to gasoline shortage and safety concerns.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3:
Hurricane Aftermath Day 5
Conditions in New Orleans improved rapidly with better security. Evacuees were steadily transported out of the Superdome and Convention Center. Hurricane Katrina disasters posed new challenges in providing care. We saw patients with
- Severe dehydration;
- Exhaustion caused by the lack of use or incorrect use of their medications for days resulting in exacerbation of chronic conditions such as COPD;
- Water-borne illnesses from prolonged immersion in toxic water;
- Reactive airway diseases from environmental allergens;
- Cellulitis from cuts and bruises in evacuees, as well as people attempting home repairs;
- Carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used incorrectly inside homes; and
- Withdrawals from illicit drug uses.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 4:
Hurricane Aftermath Day 6
During the Sunday ad-hoc church service at Ochsner, doctors, nurses, employees, patients, and families came together in spiritual healing. We sang praises of hope and optimism for our community. We were grateful for our status in this unbelievable disaster and offered prayers and hope for those who had lost so much. We had never been so proud of the efforts of every individual in our institution for maintaining this facility for patient care in such dire situations and promised to be optimistic about our future.
Fortunately, with the help of the Jefferson Parish emergency utility crews, power was restored to our institution. We became fully functional to take on the challenges of the community.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 5:
Hurricane Aftermath Day 7
The 17th Street Canal breach was controlled and the water pump back in operation. Residents of Jefferson Parish were allowed to return to take their personal items from their houses but were still under voluntary evacuation, while Orleans Parish was still closed. To plan the demand for medical care in the wake of gradual recovery, OCF began to maintain all of our employees through strategic deployments in various satellite clinics and hospitals according to the needs of the population in New Orleans and other areas.
We have learned so much from this disaster. The key to overcome such adverse conditions entails strong psychosocial support from colleagues and family. Strong leadership is crucial to maintain a sense of serenity and an optimistic outlook in times of uncertainty. We experienced a sense of camaraderie after seeing all medical personnel participating in activities beyond of the boundary of usual roles.
The expansion of the essential personnel team list to include social workers and discharge planners is crucial to focus on the unique and nonconventional logistical challenges post-disaster. Intense focus on group dynamics was essential to avoid physical and emotional burnout. Frequent and predictably scheduled face-to-face communication was also important in disseminating accurate, unadulterated information because our decision-making changed hour-to-hour immediately after Hurricane Katrina, day-to-day in the few days afterward, and week-to-week just one week post-disaster.
Obviously the financial implications are immense for our city and our institution. We are developing financial plans, a relief fund, and other resources to assist our employees who have been severely affected by the hurricane. TH
Dr. Deitelzweig and Dr. Lee work at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation, Department of Hospital-Based Internal Medicine, New Orleans. You can contact Dr. Deitelzweig by phone at (504) 842-5766; his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org