The following content is adapted from Nursing in the Storm: Voices from Hurricane Katrina by Denise Danna, DNS, RN and Sandra E. Cordray MA, MJ.
August 29, 2015 marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina affecting the city of New Orleans. Despite the strides made by the city, it’s important not to forget the medical heroes who saved lives during the traumatic disaster. At the front lines were nurses, who were subsequently thrust into Third World conditions. Maintaining patient care with no electricity to run life-saving medical devices, air-conditioners, elevators, lights, and pumps during this period brought special challenges, particularly for critical patients and those patients confined to bed. With systems down, records and physician orders had to be maintained manually. Food had to be rationed. So did supplies and other essential services needed by patients. After the storm, the hospitals also became refuges for numerous residents who were displaced by the flooding.
I can’t believe this was happening. It was extremely bad. It was just amazing. . . Some people are blocking it out. I am guilty of that. When people ask me about it, I still can’t comprehend every nuance, every little thing, every quiet heroic thing that transpired.- Marie May Traylor, Charity Hospital
When she arrives at work that Sunday, August 28, there is one patient in recovery. Marie is one of six nurses in the unit. Across the hall, the ICU is full with 12 patients. Because the daily briefings are on the first floor, Marie says her floor was isolated from regular communications. Cell phones do not work, but a colleague’s office has a WATS (wide area telephone service, used for long-distance calls) line receiving incoming calls.
By the middle of the week, fatigue, sleep deprivation, and the heat take their toll on the staff. Communications are fractured. The nurses stay away from windows in case someone decides to shoot at the building. Deceased patients are placed in an open stairwell. A nurse on the fourth floor is admitted to the psychiatric unit. “One of our nurses almost got in a fistfight with this doctor because he would come up and give us reports so dramatic, and paint such a dark picture, that the younger nurses were getting upset. This older male nurse said, ‘Get the hell out of here, we don’t need the drama with the information,’ ” Marie shares.
“Let’s just try to control what we can control. Take care of ourselves number one, and then we can take care of the patients”. – Gail Gibson, University Hospital
Gail had worked in the women’s unit at MCLNO for 20 years. She was on staff at Charity Hospital and returned to University Hospital’s maternal–child services. For several years, when code gray (the code to alert staff to prepare for an impending hurricane) was activated before a storm, a satellite delivery and nursery nursing staff was set up at Charity, their sister hospital. The satellite had not been needed for previous storms, but for Hurricane Katrina, it was needed and used.
There are five deliveries during that week, with two at Charity Hospital. The last baby arrives Thursday night. It is a 23-week-old preemie whose delivery the nursing staff had tried to delay until they could evacuate her mother. Generators are set up on every floor that had any equipment on emergency power. For Gail’s unit, there are two—one in delivery and one in the nursery. When the equipment is tested before the baby’s delivery, the staff realizes they need more than one generator. “We used two generators in the operating room to deliver and then wound up having to use about three to keep all of the equipment going for the baby. The baby was a little one—one of the first ones to go when we started transferring folks out. We got that baby out fast.”
On Wednesday, Gail says, they are informed that a helicopter evacuation is planned. The obstetric nurses would be ferried by rowboats to Tulane, three blocks away. In their arms, each nurse carries a newborn. A respiratory therapist accompanies the entourage. One baby is on a ventilator, and during the transport, the respiratory therapist hand-bags the newborn—forcing air into the tiny patient’s lungs.
But the evacuation never happens. They return to University Hospital in tears. They had been told their patients could not be taken, as Tulane is doing its last evacuation of personnel and family members. “Oh, that was probably one of the roughest times,” says Gail. “They came in, they were crying, they were angry, they were upset. They got off the boat. I pulled them into the waiting room because our boat dock was right in back of the hospital. I told them the important thing is that they made it back, they’re safe, the babies are safe, bring the babies back up, get them settled and taken care of and we’ll find out what the next steps are.
Read Nursing in the Storm: Voices from Hurricane Katrina by Denise Danna, DNS, RN and Sandra E. Cordray MA, MJ to explore more firsthand experiences from nurses on the front line of the storm.