UNC Hospitals' Hurricane Katrina Response Blog


As part of the response to Hurricane Katrina, a team of UNC Hospitals' physicians and staff left Friday, Sept. 2 to travel to the Gulf Coast as part of the MidCarolina Trauma RAC's State Medical Assistance Team II. The team from UNC Hospitals is comprised of: Christine Clark, RN; Randy Kearns; Preston "Chip" Rich, MD; Michele Rudisill, RN; Ed Wilson, RN; Ben Zarzaur, MD; and Janet Young, MD. A second team from UNC Hospitals left Sept. 9 to relieve the first group of volunteers. The second team to help staff the K-Mart Klinic in Waveland, Miss., is comprised of: Alberto Bonifacio, RN; Joe Manese, Radiology Tech; Peter Milano, 5th year surgical resident; Andrew Millager, Pharmacist; Jim Rawlings, Pastoral Care; Tina Schade-Willis, MD; Renae Stafford, Trauma Attending Surgeon; Jim Starlin, Air Care Communications; and Wes Wallace, MD., attending, emergency medicine.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Hearing with open eyes

I envy the first group that arrived in Waveland. I don't know if I would have wanted to endure the reptile and disease infested mess they had to wrestle with, but nevertheless I envy them.

Today the new second shower facility was installed and made operational. The checkpoint actually now has a gate. We are getting more and more of the supplies and equipment that we need to effectively do our jobs. A small community of federal agencies, charitable and church organizations, and medical support have joined the once desolate town of what has been called 'camp K-mart'.

It is all amazing. The first night we arrived we found a system of two pans in place to provide proper washing facilities. Equipment had just arrived, but were not yet in use. MRE's were the next best things to grandma's apple pie. The reminders of Katrina's power were still our neighbors. How things have change in the short span of a few days.

Progress is a wonderful thing. It brings with it warm showers, better and faster gadgets, and more things to occupy free time. Progress makes life more comfortable. In a few weeks, with the shops all boarded up, the camp even more established, and the stories of horror passing into distant memory, this place, once a testament of how frail we truly are, will seem all too 'normal'.

Someone told me today that a person who wanted to wash their clothes was annoyed that the one washing machine, something found on the streets, was not working. Another person was unhappy that showers were regulated to being open only between certain hours. And little annoyances have started to creep in.

It is a blessing that the people here are focused on bringing relief to those who are in need. This morning, everyone heard that extra hands were needed to clean camp when they saw others picking up brooms and collecting garbage. Doctors were changing garbage bags. Nurses took up brooms and swept. Others carried in supplies, or volunteered to get things done.

I hope that as things reach normalcy, the goal of our mission here does not become drowned out by the chatter of civilized conveniences. I hope that the fact that the storefronts have been boarded up will not mask the truth of what has happened here. I hope that with the creature comforts of the modernized world people will not loose track of what it is that we are doing here.

I envy the first group that arrived. They had the luxury of having experienced the full horror of this event in its full glory. They will remember. They will be changed. They will take with them, in its raw from, the lessons of this event. I wish that I could have been with them, despite the fact that I am not sure that I could have been as strong as they were.

Slapped Down in Mississippi

We'll call her Miss Olivia, but of course, that's not her real name. She's 86 years old, full of spirit, lives alone, drives her own car and was waiting in line at the FEMA office to get her washer and dryer fixed when she "got all sick like" and "got slapped down." After 15 minutes of questions, conversations and entertaining digressions, I finally came to the conclusion that "slapped down" meant passed out. Had this happened before? Ten minutes of stories later I discovered that this had occurred previously when her "ticker thing" (translated, pacemaker) acted up. It turned out that the pacer was scheduled to be replaced September 7, but of course, the hurricane preempted this.

Were pretty sophisticated here at Med-1, arguably the most sophisticated transportable hospital in the world -- but we don't evaluate and replace pacemakers.

"Miss Olivia, we need to transport you to another hospital. You're pacemaker isn't working well and if it fails badly, you could die"

I'm not sure I want to go to."

After more discussions there seemed to be two principle objections. One, she had some things in her purse she didn't want to carry to the hospital. "They might not be safe there." And two, she was worried that her car might be looted.

We finally convinced her that her things would be locked safely away at the hospital. The Charlotte SWAT team agreed to keep a 24 hour watch on her car. In true K-Mart Klinic fashion, problem found, problem creatively and cooperatively solved. While conditions are far from idyllic here, the cooperation among everyone is exemplary. Formalities are minimalized and the attitude is take "care of the folks." Example: phone temporarily not working at Miss Olivia's destination hospital. In a refreshing change from the usual EMTALA tango, we simply sent her. We're not a hospital in the formal sense, and the destination hospital, in an act of compassionate and responsible graciousness, had already informed us that they would take whatever we sent them.

Lots of folks are rising to this immense challenge.

Miss Olivia used my cell phone to call her son. I talked with him as well. He's working in New Orleans with a government agency and could not leave, but he'd arrange to have someone meet her at the hospital.

As the Paramedics were rolling out the door, she made them stop. She called me over to thank me. "I'm so glad you folks came to help us."

So am I.


Helping the helpers

A lady told me that she was frustrated about having gotten hurt. "I came here to help, not to be here having to be helped myself", was her complaint. I wanted to tell her something wise, but all I could come up with was to reassure her that we would do all we could to treat her injury.

Not too long after, a young soldier came with a complaint about his foot that had been bothering him for a few days. He was more stoic about his "hospital visit", but nevertheless he seemed equally frustrated. He had a job to do and this minor injury was preventing him from doing it.

All around us are people who've lost all that they have. We watch them and at the same time we try to empathize with them, yet somewhere deep inside we are so glad that we are not in their place. We focus on our jobs, telling ourselves that this is the best way we can help. We loose ourselves in our jobs, ignoring minor discomforts. What does it matter that we have to endure cold showers, or sleep in tents that are either too cold or too hot? How could these minor inconveniences compare to what the residents of this town have already experienced?

Katrina is a historic event not simply because of its awesome power, but because of the varied stories that will be told about it. Katrina is the devastating event that it is not simply because of the path of physical destruction it has left in its wake, but also because of the countless minor injuries, both physical and emotional, that it is inflicting on the residents of this town and people who have come to help.

Volumes of analysis will be written about this event. These will discuss the impact on the environment, the local economy, the physical and mental health of the surviors, or even how the beloved live oaks will react to this devastation. Katrina will touch countless lives, including those who have come to help. It should remind us that as humans we can be so easily hurt. Yet what is more important, it should remind us that despite the annoyances of daily life we as a species are programmed to come to the aid of each other. In times of great need, our primitive brain takes over and the instinct to help those that have been injured take over. Maybe it is because deep down we all realize that we are all truly connected and that protecting the other person is as much an act of protecting ourselves. We are willing to endure more in the name of helping another.

This is what I know, Katrina has united us as a nation, but also should help each of us connect to our own humanity. We can be hurt. We will be hurt. No amount of steel and cement or professional training can completely protect us from forces beyond our control. It is fortunate, however, that as a species we have built within our genes the desire to help each other. We may be here working hard to help the residents of this town with their physical injuries and needs, but they are helping remind us that there are things so much more important in life. One of these is that as a species we have it written within our genes the desire to protect and help each other.