hours after Katrina smashed into the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi,
Emory Healthcare and other components of the Woodruff Health Sciences
Center had mobilized to help those left injured, sickened, and displaced
from their homes and schools by the largest natural disaster ever seen
in the United States. They met planes of evacuees, helped reconnect people
with their families, organized volunteers, adopted shelters, opened their
homes, made room for extra students, and worked in droves on double shifts.
For many clinicians who may have thought there was little they hadn't
seen after a career in medicine, Katrina was a life-changing experience.
One doctor who befriended a toddler who had watched her mother being swept
away in the floodwaters said, "My tears were for sadness, but they
were also signs of respect for the tremendous resilience and courage that
I encountered while interacting with those impacted by Katrina."
Beyond the call of duty
With early newscasts of the devastation still blaring from their TVs,
many Emory Healthcare workers were ready to rush to areas affected by
the hurricane. A quickly formed Emory medical oversight team determined
that the infrastructure in those areas was simply too damaged and recommended
that most clinicians stay in Atlanta, where thousands of evacuees would
The VA Medical Center served as the field
coordination center, and dozens of Emory medical, nursing, and public
health faculty, staff, and students joined triage teams that met each
plane, screening arrivals to determine who needed what medical care and
to offer reassuring words: "You are not forgotten. We are here."
Before the first weekend was over, they had triaged approximately 2,500
medically fragile patients.
Even more evacuees arrived in Atlanta on
their own, presenting themselves at Emory emergency departments for counsel
and care—patients with skyrocketing hypertension, patients overdue
for dialysis, patients halfway through chemotherapy, patients who had
been scheduled for heart surgery, patients whose bodies threatened to
reject transplanted organs. Many had lost their medications in the floodwaters,
along with their glasses, clothes, and family photographs. They had no
idea where their physicians were. At least two babies were delivered.
One doctor later said the experience was as if an entire hospital had
suddenly dismissed its doctors and nurses and emptied out all its patients,
leaving them bereft not only of care but also without any prescriptions
or medical records. For the Emory doctors, every case meant starting from
Emory Healthcare took these patients in,
as they needed it, without regard to their insurance coverage. Of the
almost 400 patients hospitalized in Atlanta area hospitals during the
first days after the disaster, nearly 40%—more than 150 patients—were
sent to hospitals owned by or affiliated with Emory. Administrators scrambled
to free up beds, imaging equipment, and operating rooms in facilities
already at capacity. Emory Healthcare doctors, nurses, physician assistants,
pastoral care staff, social workers, and others, many already working
overtime, volunteered in droves for double shifts, both in the hospitals
and in Emory outpatient facilities, where another 800 Katrina evacuees
Nor did Emory simply wait for patients to
come to them. Emory emergency medicine physicians quickly took the lead
to develop a plan to provide medical coverage at shelters—both the
large shelter in the Georgia Tech coliseum and many smaller ones operated
throughout the city by the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other
organizations. Emory physicians and trainees, with vital support from
Grady Health System pharmacists and other staff, provided essential medical
services that prevented deterioration of medical conditions such as asthma,
diabetes, and epilepsy. This work not only helped the people in question
but also helped keep them out of the city's already overloaded emergency
Faculty and students in the Nell Hodgson
Woodruff School of Nursing also took the lead in coordinating recruitment
of 900 volunteers to staff the American Red Cross's three mega shelters
and scheduled nurses and nursing students to provide 24/7 triage for anyone
who came into the Salvation Army relief shelter on North Druid Hills.
Nursing faculty and students provided more than 360 volunteer hours themselves
at this shelter, which they arranged to have "adopted" by
Psychiatry faculty and residents went wherever
the evacuees were to care for both pre-existing psychiatric disorders
and post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and other tragedy-related
problems. In the hospitals, clinics, and shelters in the Emory area, Emory
Healthcare chaplains worked around the clock to counsel and comfort every
The Rollins School of Public Health assembled
teams of students to visit the six metro area shelters daily, compiling
reports on medical conditions and needs under the direction of the lead
epidemiologist in the state health department.
I must not be in New Orleans anymore
All that Louisa remembered about Katrina was the water, first spreading
across the newly mopped floor of her hospital room, then rising to her
knees. She didn't remember the helicopter in which she had been
evacuated to Atlanta or the transfer from Emory Crawford Long Hospital
to Wesley Woods Hospital for further evaluation and care.
It was as if, Wizard of Oz style, she had
suddenly been dropped from the sky into a new land. She was not quite
sure where Atlanta was or why her family never came to see her. In the
confusion of hurricane evacuation, Louisa's last name had been listed
wrong on her New Orleans hospital armband, and she couldn't remember
it. She knew the first names of her children but not their last. Eventually,
Jennifer Schuck, assistant director of social services at Wesley Woods
Center, coaxed a street address in New Orleans from the swirl of Louisa's
memories. As later would be recounted on CNN, Schuck was able to confirm
the address and obtain a last name of the residents. She then spent her
every free moment on the Internet, searching locator websites set up by
the American Red Cross and other organizations. Finally, on a website
of a small radio station in New Orleans, she found pleading messages from
Louisa's children, who had been evacuated to Chicago. Where was
the woman they called "Big Mama"? Was she lost in the waters
or had she been taken somewhere else?
When Jen made the phone call to Chicago,
there were sobs of relief. Then she stepped into Louisa's room.
"I have some news for you," she said. When she added, "Big
Mama," Louisa's eyes brightened in recognition, and she too
began to weep. She must be home.
A week earlier, Louisa had arrived in Atlanta
with no medical records. Her costs at the two hospitals had been almost
$10,000, the bulk of it at Wesley Woods. Did the mysterious Big Mama have
any Medicare or Medicaid benefits left to reimburse these costs? No one
at either hospital had asked during her treatment and did not know the
answer until long after they had stabilized her condition to the point
where she could join her family in Chicago.
with family: Staff at Emory Crawford Long Hospital established
a patient locator line that received hundreds of calls from desperate
relatives who had been told only that their loved ones had been sent somewhere
in Atlanta for care. Social workers and chaplains also worked with the
Red Cross and with organizations in Louisiana and Mississippi to get family
psychiatry professor Nadine Kaslow watched in dismay as Hurricane Katrina
destroyed the sites of at least five training programs, disrupting not
only the lives of patients being served but also those of the young psychology
graduate students and postdoctoral fellows working there. Many of the
students lost irreplaceable research data, and all lost time toward their
careers. Kaslow made it her personal mission to find every one of these
students in the country who had been displaced, tracking down dozens of
them and then reaching out to help. At a ceremony in which the American
Psychological Association presented her a presidential citation for this
work, she reacted with surprise. What she had done seemed natural to her.
"In this sea of sadness and despair, I only wanted to do a good
deed for a great group of people," she said.
Opening school doors
Katrina struck just as students were beginning the new academic year.
Tens of thousands of students at all levels were suddenly left school-less.
Their clothes, computers, and books were gone, and their schools themselves
were beyond quick repair. The situation was particularly critical for
students in professional schools, where the class sequence was less flexible,
and for international students with visas but without families in the
Although almost all of the academic divisions
at Emory were already full, that did not stop schools from offering space
to displaced students—but only as transients, since Emory wanted
to assure that Tulane and other hurricane-area schools would not permanently
lose the students they would need to rebuild. A sizeable number of the
100 undergraduates offered places at Emory were in the nursing school,
which also opened its doors to transient graduate students. Emory's
medical school also offered to accept medical students and residents displaced
by the hurricane, but national medical education organizations decided
to temporarily consolidate all displaced medical students in schools in
Houston and Baton Rouge.
Setting another place at the table
On what was supposed to be the first day of class, Tulane University told
its faculty, staff, and students to leave New Orleans immediately. Tulane
also lined up 10 buses to evacuate those without transportation. Among
the 500 people climbing aboard with only a small bag was Ana Chevez, a
pediatrician who serves as coordinator of her native El Salvador's
national immunization program. Chevez and other high-level public officials
from numerous developing countries had arrived in New Orleans only days
before to spend a year as Humphrey Fellows at Tulane's School of
Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Instead, they spent the first three
days of the semester sleeping on a gym floor in Jackson, Mississippi.
On Tuesday, after the levees broke in New Orleans, there was no going
back. On Wednesday, Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi coast, hard
enough to knock out electricity and running water in distant Jackson.
After five nights in the gym, two without power, the students were bussed
yet again, this time to another gym at Georgia Tech. In the meantime,
Emory's public health dean, Jim Curran, was on the phone with public
health deans across the country, sorting out which schools could take
in more of the displaced students. The Rollins School of Public Health
was full, but in an emergency the school could always find another place
at the table. Chevez was one of more than two dozen international students
for whom the school made room.
Ruben Jamalyan, a health care reform administrator
from Armenia, was another, but his journey to Emory was even more circuitous.
Because his wife and 2-year- old child planned to join him in New Orleans,
he had just gotten a small apartment north of the city. During the evacuation,
Tulane administrators tried desperately to get through on Ruben's
cell phone, but the networks were jammed. After holding a bus for two
hours, they had to leave without him. Unsure what was happening, Ruben
made his way to the Superdome. The nightmare of confusion, deprivation,
filth, and danger was far beyond what people saw on television, he said.
After five awful days, with only minutes notice, he was loaded onto a
bus for Dallas and from there to Atlanta and the Rollins School.
At Rollins, the new students were virtually
adopted, given clothes, places to live, pots and pans, gift cards, and
study opportunities as close as possible to what had been planned for
them at Tulane. Rollins took no money from the Humphrey Foundation for
their tuition; that continued to go to Tulane, so faculty there could
continue to be paid. Catastrophe was no stranger to most of the arriving
international students—many had lived through earthquakes, hurricanes,
even revolutions and civil wars in their own countries—but Hurricane
Katrina gave them unexpected insight into this country's readiness
to open its hearts and homes. That, as much as the public health classes
and work experience they received at Emory, is what they will carry home.
Reaching out to help
People from throughout the University opened their hearts, wallets, and
homes. Halls across the campus were stacked with boxes of diapers, food,
blankets, and clothes. In the hospitals, social services and pastoral
care received mountains of clothes and personal items donated by local
churches, synagogues, and mosques and sorted and distributed them to patients,
many of whom had arrived in Atlanta with only the clothes on their back
and shoes moldy from walking in filthy waters. A quickly established Emory
website collected more than $10,000, in addition to fund-raising efforts
across the Woodruff Health Sciences Center (WHSC), often led by students
and staff. A message sent out by the WHSC CEO to faculty and staff said
not to worry about Emory getting the "credit" for gifts—just
give them. Money. Blood. Time. In addition to a service that matched more
than 200 health care workers with health-related needs, Emory Healthcare's
HealthConnection switchboard staffed a special line where employees could
register to volunteer. A university-wide email calling for 200 volunteers
to sort supplies at the American Red Cross went out at 9:44 pm one evening,
followed the next morning by a second message saying that more than enough
people had already signed up. The response was similar when a request
went out for people to house evacuees.
Taking care of animal friends
When liver transplant recipient Lorne Bennett and his wife Valerie were
evacuated from New Orleans, there was no room in the boat for their pets.
All the Bennetts were allowed to bring with them was a bag filled with
Lorne's medications. An anesthesiologist at the hospital where Valerie
worked and where Lorne had been a patient promised to watch over their
two dogs, cat, and guinea pig, and some 30 other pets left behind by other
evacuated patients and staff. The pets lived on the roof of the hospital
until they too were evacuated to Houston.
Meanwhile, at Emory Hospital, nurses and
physicians involved with Mr. Bennett's care realized that the couple
was grieving over their pets left behind. Pet lovers themselves, the clinicians
called social services, where other pet lovers quickly became involved.
The story was put on the Internet, and a couple from Houston volunteered
to drive the animals 16 hours to reunite them with their "parents."
Social services worker Michelle DePaola took the Bennett's dogs
into her home, and nurse Terri Walter volunteered to care for the cat
and guinea pig until Mr. Bennett was released from the hospital.
Others were watching out for animal friends
as well. Reseachers in the areas hit by Katrina were dazed by the loss
of research data and equipment, but their first concern after the safety
of staff and students was for the research animals in their facilities.
Staff at Yerkes National Primate Research Center worked with colleagues
at the National Institutes of Health to help ensure that Yerkes'
sister primate center at Tulane University was well equipped with food
Something for the road:
When patients were able to leave Emory Healthcare facilities, they were
often handed gallon-size plastic bags filled with soap, toothpaste, nail
clippers, and other personal items they would need in the days ahead.
Assembled at home according to specifications, these gifts were parting
gestures of affection from those who had provided their care.
Many Emory staff opened their homes to evacuees, included displaced family
members of their own. Tomika George Davis (right, in red), a medical secretary
at Emory University Hospital who is from New Orleans, housed relatives
for many weeks following the disaster. "Nearly every year, New Orleans
has been evacuated because of a hurricane, and nothing terrible ever happened,"
she says. "That's why a lot of people didn't evacuate.
The Saturday night before it hit, we got a call from my cousin asking
if he could come up and stay. During the first weekend, we ended up with
13 people staying. The second week we had 15 people. We had people sleeping
on air mattresses all over the place. Some of my family members lost homes—lost
It was a very trying time."