News Seth Stratton | 6 years ago

Emergency Medical Staff Reflects on Katrina

Hurricane Katrina made landfall 10 years ago in the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005. The Category 3 storm slammed the Gulf Coast leaving an estimated 1,800 dead and wreaking devastation across the Gulf Coast.

Just four days later, Carolinas HealthCare System’s newly formed mobile hospital unit – the first of its kind in the world - left from Charlotte, NC, for its first test in the field. In this case, “the field” was a Kmart parking lot in Mississippi near where Katrina hit the hardest. The volunteer staff from hospitals across North Carolina who deployed with Carolinas MED-1 for those seven weeks say they will never forget the breath-stealing stench, the never-ending debris, the hot, muggy days and nights, and the random sights of boats stuck in trees, bridge pilings with no bridges, twisted train tracks and concrete foundations with no homes. MED-1, with its convoy of two tractor-trailers and 15 support vehicles, rolled into the Deep South not knowing what to expect, after reports of civil unrest, looting and general lawlessness. But what they found were people waving and giving thumbs up even as tears rolled down their cheeks. They found people who needed help with cuts, broken bones, heart attacks, strokes and infections. They found survivors who kept their sense of humor, making signs that read “Open House Today” at a lot where a house once stood. These Mississippians had lost everything and were grateful for the free care. “The people we treated offered what they had,” says Sandy Craig, MD, an emergency physician at Carolinas Medical Center, on recalling what happened 10 years ago. “I had an older woman offer to bring me some of her best moonshine. I told her she’d better keep it.” Residents brought pizzas and cookies, and gave hugs – willing to share what little they had with the folks from North Carolina who came all that way to help. Carolinas MED-1 is a mobile hospital, designed to set up in 45 minutes, and includes digital X-ray, ultrasound, lab, pharmacy, seven acute care beds, four intensive care beds, a two-bed operating room and a dental chair. That first night, 10 patients made their way to the parking lot. The next day, 100 patients came. At one point, MED-1 was seeing 300 patients a day. “Overall, it was the best experience of my life,” says Amber Stepp, an emergency room nurse at the time who has since become a nurse practitioner working at Carolinas Medical Center with heart failure patients. “The team-building was wonderful. Everyone came together, even people we didn’t know. I’ll never forget it. We got to see the best of human nature.” Dr. Craig also remembers how everyone pitched in. Do away with the politics and red tape, and people make things happen. “After days of red tape for everything – getting permission to go, getting permission to refuel our trucks, it turned out the plain, non-administrative people made things happen,” she says. “They got amazing stuff done in the time we were there.” When Carolinas MED-1 began setting up in the parking lot of the shopping center in Waveland, a lot of debris and many flooded-out cars needed to be moved. Two FEMA workers with front-end loaders moved the cars and made a wall around the compound three cars deep. When the staff had its fill of MREs (the pre-packaged food known as Meals Ready to Eat), Dr. Craig says a church group stepped in and set up a food tent. “Those MREs were awful. I ate one and stuck to power bars the rest of the time,” she says. “But when that tent went up, it was great. They fed us, and anyone who needed food. They also collected supplies such as diapers, blankets, toiletries and gave freely to the locals, most of whom had lost literally everything. In the seven weeks (Sept. 2 to Oct. 14) on the Gulf Coast, Carolinas MED-1 treated 7,500 patients with two dozen surgeries, heart attacks, strokes and serious infections. Dr. Craig remembers a woman going into premature labor. “I’ve delivered babies before, but that is not my specialty,” she says. “I did feel the woman was going into labor. I knew the baby was really early and would need the NICU.” Staff arranged transport to a hospital about an hour away. Dr. Craig went with her and held the woman’s hand. “She gave birth within minutes of arriving,” she says. Dr. Craig left behind her three children for her nine-day rotation, and clearly remembers the day a corporation came to the mobile until site to install a satellite transceiver and phone lines. “We had no communications before that,” she says. “I remember it was Tuesday, Sept. 6, and I got to call my daughter on her third birthday.” Despite the awful MREs, the cold showers, the alligator-infested rubble, the lack of communications to the outside world and the smells, Dr. Craig says, “No matter how tough we had it, the local folks had it worse. No one complained. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” UPDATE: The people of Waveland typically would have been served by Hancock Medical Center, but it was heavily damaged by the storm. The medical center sustained $26 million in damages and the community as a whole was devastated. A dedicated group helped pull the hospital and the community back together. But, 10 years later, Hancock is still feeling the effects. The hospital, pre-Katrina had 104 beds but post-Katrina only 47 beds. More residents are returning to the area and officials are hopeful the hospital will once again be licensed for 104.