Two Weeks in Louisiana
November 15 - 28, 2005

We were a select group of health care professionals who responded to a call by the Public Health Service for volunteers to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  We served on Mobile Outreach Medical Care teams (primary care and immunization teams that reached out to the affected communities).

We were federalized as temporary employees of the U. S. Public Health Service at the FEMA command center in Baton Rouge.  We were billeted in Baton Rouge at the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired (the children had been evacuated).  Each morning at 6:45 we departed by minibus to New Orleans (with a Starbucks stop enroute).  Our work site was a large white vinyl tent configured as a disaster relief medical clinic near (then-uninhabitable) Methodist Hospital in New Orleans.  We returned to the School each evening between 5 and 6 for dinner in the dining hall.

There were no bureaucratic barriers to our delivery of health care.  Patients of all ages, races and nationalities simply walked in, described their health problems, were examined, treated, and provided with any needed prescriptions.  No personal data was needed or obtained - just name, symptom, city.  No waiting.  No ID needed.  No health insurance needed.   We warmly welcomed all who showed up at the site – there were, typically, 100 to 150 patients daily.  Responsible adult children brought in their sick, frail or elderly parents and grandparents.  Patients given prescriptions could take them to any pharmacy in Louisiana and have them filled free.  Physicians and nurses brought empathy, respect, genuineness, concreteness and immediacy.  They provided efficient symptom management.  It was a beautiful thing.

I marveled at the resiliency, perseverance and resoluteness of patients who came in: returning evacuees; battered victims who weathered Katrina in their homes, churches and shelters; relief workers serving in a variety of roles; fire, police and security people, and laborers “gutting” structures.

Patients awaiting medical care relaxed and sensed our compassion and support.  We listened to them, treated them, and walked with them.  If they felt comfortable doing so, patients told their stories.  They described plights overwhelmingly chaotic and challenging.  Many were numb and in mild shock, or manifesting an unsettled resignation – an acceptance of events beyond their control.  Problems were defined in the telling – of incredible sagas of survival.  Long term solutions seemed out of reach – their priority was to meet immediate needs and survive another day. 

I provided children with crayons and paper, and asked them to draw pictures of their families.  Their artwork reflected strong, stable families amidst crisis.  This was not a clinical setting in which to elicit deep feelings, challenge stoicism, advise or encourage people to ventilate, or nudge them to "open up."   We respected their need to hold it together cognitively, to enable a focus on the immediate tasks of obtaining food, shelter, employment and medical care.

Imagine all your personal records, including records of achievement, family pictures, books, computers with phone lists, passwords, writings, etc. were simply gone overnight.  Your home of four generations, your automobile, food, house, and keys are under ten feet of water or gone.  Your cell phone is useless from water damage or lack of a battery.  Phone numbers of relatives and friends are gone.  Bank records (and bank) are gone.  Physician and all health records are gone.  Church and congregation are gone.  Displaced relatives and friends have been separated and bused to shelters in other states, or are still missing.  You have the concrete foundation of your home, but all your material things are gone.  Your neighborhood is now a toxic, biohazardous soup.

Following devastation, would you have the strength of character to rebuild your life?  What has sustained and inspired you?  Do you define yourself by your possessions and status, or by your values?

I am grateful for the grace and professionalism of the United States Public Health Service and my 10 co-volunteers.  We were diverse – physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, a pharmacist, and a clinical social worker.  We functioned smoothly as a collegial, cooperative group, and were free to exercise our professional judgment as needed.

How fortunate we were to have the freedom, health, energy and competence to be useful in a field health care clinic, serving hurricane victims and relief workers.  In the most direct, effective and human way, we elevated moods, provided comfort, and alleviated suffering.

-William Walsh    2006