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When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast the Sunday before Labor Day, faculty, staff, and students in the Woodruff Health Sciences Center mobilized quickly to offer assistance. Physicians and nurses worked around the clock tending to evacuated patients at hospitals, clinics, and emergency shelters. Nursing and public health students met flights at Dobbins Air Reserve Base. Administrators spent hours on the phones trying to relocate medical, nursing, and public health students from institutions in Mississippi and Louisiana that were closed indefinitely due to storm damage. Social workers and pastoral counselors helped families locate loved ones and offered patients a chance to talk about their experiences. The human resources department at Emory Healthcare helped organize a job fair for evacuees looking for work in the Atlanta area.
     Countless others collected clothing, food, and cleaning supplies to distribute to people who lost everything in the storm. For both the hurricane’s victims and those who worked to help them, that weekend changed their lives forever.
On the following pages, a few of Emory’s volunteers recall the experience in their own words.

“Nearly every single year, New Orleans has been evacuated because of a hurricane, and nothing terrible ever happened. That’s why a lot of people didn’t evacuate. We haven’t seen anything like this since I’ve been alive.
“The Saturday night before it hit, we got a call from my cousin asking if he could come up and stay. I didn’t know until then that Katrina was even in the Gulf. . . . During the first weekend, we ended up with 13 people staying. The second week we had 15 people. We had just moved into our home in May, our first home. Now we have people sleeping on air mattresses all over the place. Some of my family members lost homes—lost everything. It’s a very trying time now, very trying.”Tomika George Davis, a medical secretary at Emory University Hospital, is from New Orleans.

“The first day or two at the North Druid Hills shelter, we saw exhausted people who were out of their medicine, dehydrated from diarrhea, or had insomnia. We had a few cases of bronchitis, cough, and cold. Outside of medical needs, people also needed to decompress. They had had horrendous experiences. They wanted to “see the doctor,” but they really just needed to tell their stories.
     I think people now realize they could be easily overwhelmed with a regional natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Health care leaders within a day’s drive of the emergency will need to do shelter needs assessments, aggressively recruit a large group of volunteers, and set up a volunteer schedule to avoid volunteer burnout.”
Charles Harper, Emory medical faculty member and director of Grady Hospital’s Urgent Care Center. Harper recruited volunteer nurses and residents at Grady, doubling the center’s staffing to handle the influx of evacuees. After the initial rush was over, he coordinated medical volunteers at the Salvation Army shelter on North Druid Hills Road.
“First, we were told we were going to a field hospital in Alexandria, which is just north of Baton Rouge. But when we got to the special needs shelter, it was nursing home patients, and we were prepared to be treating trauma and critical care patients. We ended up working a 12-hour shift there, organizing their supplies and talking with the evacuees. But we still felt we were really needed somewhere else. So paramedics with an ambulance stationed just outside the shelter offered to take us back to the emergency operation command center in Baton Rouge.
     We got there at 3 am and slept on army cots. The volunteers there tried to find us places as nurses, and they couldn’t. I was starting to get frustrated. So we talked with some other paramedics and told them we’d like to go to New Orleans. I told them we were three misplaced critical care nurses and asked if they could take us with them.
     I think the fundamental problem was that there were so many different agencies working independently, the Red Cross, FEMA, the Louisiana Department of Public Health, and the military.
     Even so, I am so glad I went. This whole experience made me reevaluate my life. I’m so thankful for my family. And I’m so thankful for what I have.”
—Emory Hospital research nurse Michelle Uhl volunteered for an Angel Flight mission to Louisiana in the storm’s immediate aftermath.
“I was just so struck by the devastation—knowing that people had lost everything. I remember one couple had floated their baby in a waterproof container as they walked through the contaminated water, so she wasn’t sick when she arrived.
     I was really proud of Emory’s response, and I was grateful for the spirit of the people with whom I worked. I’m a nurse midwife so I don’t normally think about emergencies at this level. The coordination and communication that I saw was incredible.”
Maureen Kelley, chair of the Department of Family and Community Nursing at the nursing school. Kelley worked at Red Cross Service Centers over Labor Day weekend and later helped coordinate nursing volunteers at the Salvation Army shelter on North Druid Hills Road.

“We deal with sudden illness, death, and grief every day. But Katrina victims’ problems were complicated by disorientation. One woman told me, ‘I feel like I’ve been kidnapped.’ She had been picked up off the top of a hospital and put in a C5A [military transport plane]. The next thing she knew, she was in Atlanta in an ambulance coming to Emory Hospital.
     We saw every evacuee for the first 72 hours in each hospital. We helped them reconnect with relatives and discover their own spiritual and coping resources to deal not only with the flood and evacuation, but their medical issues. Many chaplains and social services people helped evacuees who couldn’t stand in housing lines—even securing efficiency apartments for long-term needs.”
Woody Spackman, executive director, Clinical Pastoral Services, Emory Healthcare.

“With Katrina, we learned that there’s no textbook approach in dealing with disasters. There are certain principles of disaster planning, and you can know and follow those principles, those techniques, those interventions. But really, there’s no set approach to address every situation, no matter how you prepare. . . . One of our biggest challenges was identifying patients. I interviewed a woman who could not remember if she had come from a nursing home or if she had had recent surgery. She couldn’t give her date of birth or address. Her mind was fuzzy from the event. So in those cases where patients couldn’t give us any identification, we had to use any available technology to identify a person, including the web.
     There were years when I was at the bedside, especially early on in my career. And it’s not that I never do that now, because I frequently do. But Katrina was different because we knew that each patient had gone through such a horrible experience.”
Mary Alice Merrill, director of Utilization Review and Social Services for Emory Hospitals.

“I can’t describe the natural adrenaline I get when I hand a baby doll to a 3-year-old girl who has lost all her toys. Or what it is like to stand next to a rubbish pile with someone who pulls out their old photo album from it and starts to show you each picture, water running across it blurring the image, but the picture obviously still so vivid in their head and heart.
     How can we laugh and smile with people who have lost so much? I don’t know. Perhaps grace. Perhaps hope. Perhaps the value of love and family that keeps so many of them going. There is so much to be done, but it’s the little things that keep hope coming. I hope that’s what we were able to share. And I hope what I gave was greater than all that I gained through this experience.
—From an email to friends and family by nursing student Crystal Bailey. Bailey and fellow students Melanie Twohy and Katie Stump went to New Orleans over the school’s fall semester break to help with recovery efforts.

“We increased our staffing at Crawford Long to take care of additional patients, some of whom arrived in the middle of the night. Essentially, we had 24/7 coverage. In addition to their regular shifts, a few of the staff came in at 5:00 in the morning to do admissions and to help out, and others even volunteered to be on call. We had an extra team in the daytime, and we had an extra physician on call at night.”
     “I think the Emory community quickly realized how rapidly they could put together a very coherent and cohesive approach to delivering care to the evacuees. It was quite stunning. And I think this is critical: Emory was proactive in responding to Katrina. They were not reactive. It was not, ‘Let’s wait and see.’ But rather, ‘We need to be ready.’
Mark Williams, director of the hospitalist program at Emory Healthcare. Williams helped organize Team Katrina—a group of
hospital-based physicians who worked around the clock to provide immediate care to evacuees.
“I learned a lot from this experience. I lived in New York during September 11th, so this to me was a similar event. And I worked for the U.S. fund for UNICEF for seven years before coming here, so emergency response was something I knew how to do.
     But I’ve never been in the position where I had to coordinate, strictly from a medical perspective, such a variety of needs. One gentleman had been treading water for four or five hours in downtown New Orleans and then walked for two days to get out.
      You know, New York City had a disaster management plan for a very long time, but it was in theory only. Galveston, Houston, New Orleans, and the Florida panhandle, I’m sure, all have evacuation plans, in theory. But they’re not necessarily plans that have been updated or maintained or practiced. We need to practice. Otherwise, how can we move 40,000 people out of a town or evacuate 2,400 ICU patients overnight?
Wendy Rhein, the School of Nursing’s director of service learning. Rhein coordinated the nursing response at the Salvation Army shelter for evacuees on North Druid Hills Road. The university committed to providing around-the-clock nursing support to the shelter while it remained open.
  Christine van Roosen is a freelance writer in Atlanta. Robin Tricoles is the managing editor of the Journal of Hospital Medicine.  


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