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, October 03, 2005

Reality checks

Someone stoppped me in the halls of the hospital not long after I came back from Waveland. They said to me "you are my hero". This prompted a discussion which I answered with "the people in MS are the heroes.. the ones who sent their families away but stayed to take care of those who they knew would need their help".

Reality Check #1: It was a longer discussion than I was ready for having not totally processed/compartmentalized/organized in my head all that I had seen, touched, felt, heard and smelled during that week. In fact, I was pretty crabby the week I was back. Some people could rightly say something a bit stronger. I was back in the world of what healthcare has become... layers and layers of "stuff" between us and our patients.... scheduling, insurance companies, whether or not someone can pay, appointments, computers, bureauocracy ... much of what seems to be totally out of our control. Hurricane Katrina and the people of Waveland gave us the opportunity to truly practice not only the science of medicine but also the art of medicine which is so often lost in our daily existence. For that, I am truly grateful.

Reality Check #2: That discussion continued with the person I was speaking to being genuinely interested in what we had seen and experienced. I wasn't ready to talk about it yet. Reminded me of the stories I have heard from Veterans who come back from the war and are bombarded with questions.

Reality Check #3: Toward the end of the discussion they said, "well, you're my hero, at least for today". Attempting to disavow any of this notion didn't work well. I mentioned that my time there was brief and I knew that I would be coming home to a real bed, hot water, good food, etc. The comeback was " Yes, but you had a choice and said yes". I said that the volunteers and healthcare workers who stayed there also had a choice and they stayed! That reply didn't work too well either. The real answer came to me as I was driving home one night with the smell of rotten flesh still in my pores and nostrils after having done a case in the OR. It reminded me of the smells in Waveland that we all became habituated to relatively quickly. What we are truly talking about here is not heroism but altruism. Healthcare workers choose to do what they do because of altruism.... whether they do it in their daily practice where they treat whoever walks in the door regardless of how unpleasant things might be or whether they travel to some disaster or third world country to do the same thing.

Reality check#4: I went for a run a few days ago and as I ran through a particularly affluent neighborhood it dawned on me that the lawns were manicured, there were green trees, birds were out and the crickets were singing and there were people walking hand in hand and children riding bikes. Pretty mundane to most people but....One of the things I did most days in Waveland after seeing patients was to venture out into the community for a run. Many people thought I was crazy "it's not safe", "who knows what's out there" "why do you want to see all that destruction after taking care of people all day" were some of the comments I heard. It wasn't easy to explain... I needed to do that, it helped me experience and understand what my patients had been been through, helped to sort out my thoughts at the end of the day. I tried to get others to join me but for the first few days, I had no takers. As the days went by, a few more people decided to come along. I appreciated their comraderie. You see, on those runs in Waveland...... there were no leaves in the trees. The only birds were occasional vultures. There were no children riding bicycles. The one manicured lawn along the route stood out in stark contrast to the devastation all around. There were no couples walking hand in hand... only the occasional people picking through the rubble of their lives or giving one another a hug for support.

And so, to those who have wanted to go to the affected areas and help but weren't able to travel for whatever the reason, I understand why. To those who have gone... don't ignore the reality checks that have come and will be coming your way.


When Race and Class Cannot be Disentangled

From television it was bad, from the air it was a disaster, but from the ground up close and personal with the lives of the affected, it was hell. That which was the the dream of the majority of doctors, nurses, and other treating professionals- provding care based on need and in a system where health is parmount and obstacles to patient care like insurance are non-existent- was a nightmare for the residents of Waveland, MS. The placidity of patient care was too often interrupted by a glance outside of the guarded fence to the misery, dispair, and suffering on the faces of those that had been most affected by Katrina. The storm, for many, took possessions and personal artifacts; homes, cars, and furniture that will be recovered. For others, she took that which was most precious and difficult to recover; dignity, self-respect, and the lives of family and close friends.

The previously homeless now stand in the same lines as their once separated-by-affluence neighbors for food, assistance, and clothing. The uneducated stand beside the educated. The old and tired stand beside the young and vibrant. Majority now stands with minority. Katrina, has reduced class, race, education, age, and achievement into one class; disenfranchised.

We came to help a disenfranchised Waveland, independent of historical achievements, social class, education, age, or race. We stand proud on our contributions to their recovery, yet dysphoric knowing that some community in the near future will need our services again. We are inspired by the strength of those who persist, even when all has been lost. We continue to work hard for residents knowing that we stand beside volunteers each day that lost more than we now have.

From this hell we hope that the residents of Waveland continue to work towards a better future, strive for a higher level of functioning, and dream of a Waveland recovered from the effects of Katrina.

Dr. Christopher L. Edwards
Deployment Team #5
Camp North Carolina