“The first ride for me was surreal: a moonless night, unlit buildings and towers, pilots with night vision goggles. A triage landing site had been established on the edge of town on the interstate. Amazingly there were thousands of people waiting, ready to help, but no one had known of our plight. We dumped our patients with brief medical records taped to their forearms into waiting ambulances for dispersion all over the region. A day later I got a call that the 23-year-old patient was alive and doing well.
“We continued the air evacuation all day Thursday, Thursday night, and Friday morning. Nurses cat-napped on the concrete roof by putting their heads on the legs of colleagues who bagged and comforted those waiting for the next helicopter. Not knowing the structural integrity of the rooftop, the Black Hawk pilots stayed powered up while we loaded our patients, docs, and O2 cylinders. After 48 hours of screaming commands over the roaring sound of the Black Hawks our entire ICU staff was both deaf and mute. By Friday afternoon we had completed our mission and walked the three blocks back to Charity in chest-deep sewage just in time to discover that FEMA had arrived to begin evacuating our hospital.
“I cried when I left Charity, perhaps for the last time ever. Some were tears of triumph, some were tears of profound sadness. Triumph for the miracle of human resolve that allowed a group of civilian doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists to accomplish what the federal government could not. We got all of our patients out alive except two. One we expected to die; the other was an intubated elderly lady with COPD whose husband we were forced to leave behind at Charity.
“I remember how he sat day and night fanning his wife in the sweltering heat of the ICU. Fanning even as he seemed to slip into sleep. She died in the arms of her resident physician who could do no more on the rooftop than comfort her with the touch of a hand. I never saw her husband again because he was evacuated before I got back to the hospital. I don’t even know if he knows that she had died. Even if he does know, I somehow feel that he remains profoundly grateful.
“I feel sad because valuable time was lost both due to the anemic early response and because valuable resources were misused. I personally witnessed dozens and dozens of helicopters—many military—land and fly away with able-bodied citizens while patients died on the rooftop. And sadly, many of those able-bodied citizens were physicians.
“It was an experience that I will never forget. I left with one memento: a set of keys of a John Doe with an unknown medical condition that we loaded into a helicopter to be carried to an unknown place with an uncertain future. If you received a John Doe looking for his keys, let me know, I’d love to one day be able return them.”
Steve McPherson, MD, a third-year Tulane medicine resident was assigned to the ICU of University Hospital. Here is his story.
“I was on a typical every third call schedule for the ICU working that Friday night [August 26, 2005]. As far as I knew, Katrina was in the Gulf at a category 2 and headed for the Panhandle. Friday night as I answered four or five pages, I kept checking the weather channel. The reports kept looking worse. Katrina was growing in strength and had changed course to head right at New Orleans.