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The Chris Chandler Show

  • New Orleans

    From a Doctor in Houston

    Images of third world chaos confronted us on television sets throughout

    the world last week. Mostly african-american and impoverished victims

    of Hurricane Katrina remained stranded in New Orleans and throughout

    the small towns of the gulf coast. Seemingly paralyzed first world

    spectators sat fixed to the TV. The suffering crowds in the New Orleans

    Superdome chanting "Help, help, help!!" became vividly imprinted in my


    As a physician I was willing to help though several official

    communications by email indicated I was not needed and warned

    physicians "Do not self-deploy...".  Though I received these warnings

    on a daily basis, I went with my conscience, my intuition that I was

    needed, and I "self deployed" to the Houston Astrodome where the

    victims were finally being bussed after surviving hurricane, flood,

    starvation, dehydration and near asphyxiation from bureaucratic red

    tape delays and inefficiencies.

    The Houston Astrodome and surrounding buildings were prepared to accept

    up to 25,000 victims and the impressive "Astrodome Health Center" was

    created overnight. The makeshift hospital/clinic in the Reliant Arena

    included over 20 exam rooms, a pharmacy, radiology, lab, 24 hour

    observation, quarantine sleeping quarters,  and specialty sections

    including pediatrics, orthopedics, social work, mental health and more.

    Staffed by Harris County Hospital District, the local doctors and

    residents helped as they were able.  Volunteer doctors and nurses from

    out of state were a welcome relief, placed on 12 hour shifts with the


    When the buses began to arrive, only one internal medicine doctor was

    available to triage.  Bus after bus lined up and though half the people

    were too faint to walk, they crawled off the bus so that others behind

    them could get out.  Each person had a small plastic bag containing all

    their worldly possessions covered in human waste along with the

    poisonous gumbo that now surrounded their beloved hometown.  The stench

    was overpowering.  Their skin looked as if they had been dipped in

    hydrogen peroxide, especially the babies.

    As patients were triaged to hospitals, others were rehydrated, fed and

    helped to small green cots which completely covered the Astrodome

    floor.  Supplies were readily available and the refugees soon parted

    with their tattered bags in a large pile at the entrance to the arena

    as they realized their basic needs would be met.  Though barely alive

    and heartbroken from their tragedy, they were peaceful, kind and

    incredibly polite.

    I spoke to the doctor who was the first to care for the refugees and

    with tears in his eyes he recounted some of his experiences in those

    first few hours.  A busload of dehydrated hospice patients arrived

    amidst the others without medical records,  medication or food for

    days. He queried a gentleman about a curious severe sunburn limited to

    the very top of his head.  The gentleman revealed that he stood two

    days packed so tightly with others on a small dry piece of land. They

    were so densely packed together that a deceased man beside him was even

    unable to fall.

    Then there was a couple caring for 22 children during the storm as

    their apartment was considered the safest in the area. The couple then

    witnessed the complete destruction of the surrounding homes and deaths

    of the childrens' parents. Flood waters forced the couple to place the

    newly orphaned children on large pieces of furniture.  Then 2

    inflatable swimming pools were used to float away to higher ground.

    In the corner of our makeshift hospital I pulled back the yellow

    plastic curtain with the taped piece of paper indicating room 9 and met

    a a sweet 57 year old woman named Beulah Chester.  Beulah was covered

    in a rash and as she scratched her limbs visciously, she related the

    horrors of her past week.

    Beulah, a piano teacher from the New Orlenas edgewood neighborhood,

    raised 102 foster children over 18 years and was caring for two boys,

    one mentally retarded and the other autistic, when Katrina hit.

    Initially relieved by the light damage she then noted the rising flood

    waters after the levees ruptured.  She and the boys were forced to the

    second floor as she watched her beautiful organ and piano submerge

    along with a lifetime of photos and memorabilia.

    Her neighbors screamed for hours and the stopped. Had they drowned she

    wondered.  Later as she hitched a ride on a small boat out of a second

    story window with her two boys, she noted a deceased  neighbor being

    tied to her home to preserve her identity. Stellah and her boys were

    soon deposited on a dry patch of I-10 and told to wait for rescue buses

    along with others.

    She witnessed countless horrors at this I-10 bus stop without food or

    water for 2 days.  A man arrived after losing his entire family and

    proceeded to climb the overpass and jump to his death in front of the

    "rescued" crowd.  He lay face down floating in the now bloody waters

    surrounding his head as nightfall enveloped the eerie scene.  People

    were screaming and other were seizing  as Stellah tried to help and

    find a safe spot for her family to rest.

    A woman arrived the next day with a small baby wrapped in a blanket.

    When Beulah went to peak at the baby the mother warned not to wake him.

    Beulah paused tearful as she told me the baby was as blue as my scrubs.

     She eventually was able to tell a passing police officer who took the

    baby from the shrieking woman and drove them both away.  Their safe dry

    patch of I-10 was surrounded by the unbearable odor of sewage, death ,

    and suffering.

    She related the arrival of the buses and the transport to the

    Astrodome, the kindness of the people who have cared for her in

    Houston.  "The last time I got this rash was when my mother passed,

    it's my nerves." Despite her traumas, Buelah had a beautiful smile, was

    incredibly polite and appreciative during our time together. I was

    amazed by her resilience.  It was easy to treat her rash, insomnia, and

    replenish her diabetic supplies.  Though more difficult, I was honored

    to hold her hands tenderly and allow her to begin the  process of

    grieving a tragedy.

    I remember a famous French Quarter musician known in room 8.  He was to

    meet up with other musicians for a hurricane party the night of the

    storm. Sudden chest pain sent him to the ER instead. After a diagnosis

    of gastric reflux he was discharged but unable to leave due to the

    rising water. The ER moved to higher ground and eventually he was

    evacuated to the Astrodome with no possessions, CDs, all his music

    lost.  He was here now to evaluate his diarrhea and to see if he needed

    to be quarantined. He also needed basic medical care for glaucoma,

    diabetes and with his guinness book of record toenails I suggested

    podiatry as well.

    I saw many skin infections, chemical burns, diarrhea, and injuries.

    Some patients required admission for infected joints or pneumonia.

    Identifying chronic medications was challenging with lost medical

    records and pill bottles swept away.  Most were on something for

    "sugar" and  "pressure."  I noticed the prescriptions from the

    Astrodome Pharmacy all had "Prescriber: Katrina, Hurricane" noted on

    the bottles.  Can't say I have ever seen anything like that before!

    Despite the high rate of diabetes there was always a large box of

    krispy kreme doughnuts on the diabetic supply table beside the

    glucometers. Comfort foods I suspect.

    I met so many heroes. Glen Beverly, an apartment manager of the St.

    Peter Claver Apartments, singlehandedly floated to safety all his

    tenants on a Winn Dixie freezer door.  I discovered creativity and

    strength in the face of disaster, bravery, courage, and most impressive

    the resilient fun loving and open spirit of the survivors who worked

    collectively to save one another, placing the needs of others in front

    of their own.

    At the Astrodome Health Center I served as family physician, social

    worker, orderly, and friend.  When not caring for the patients, I was

    comforting the survivors from cot to cot on the Astrodome floor,

    passing out handmade soap, aroma therapy lotion, angel wings, lavender

    eye pillows, gifts from my hometown including money from a benefit

    garage sale on my street.  The children were so curious and playful

    checking out my stethoscope and listening to each others hearts. I came

    to share my skill, offer an open heart and a helping hand.

    For me it was a simple case of self deploy or self deplore. Leaving the

    comfort of the known and jumping in to help was the least I could do.

    Our leaders should disentangle themselves from their red tape and come

    out of their large offices and do the same.