My mother worked at Charity, and later University Hospital, at least half of my life. When she and her colleagues were finally evacuated, the last hospital to be cleared after Katrina and the levee breach flooding, the last hospital to get not only its patients out but its staff, the doors of Charity, for the first time since the building opened, were locked. Nurses cried. Charity had never been closed before. It served the working poor and indigent and homeless, police officers with gunshot wounds (like many city hospitals with Level 1 trauma centers, some folks called the place the Knife and Gun Club), car crash surviviors, young mothers in labor, patients from Louisiana and Mississippi and Central America. And now it is partly housed in an emptied department store. Like I tell everyone I know, don’t get shot.
The Times-Picayune did a lovely series on Memorial Hospital’s post-storm tribulations (and the doctor and nurses accused of murder, charges many are still baffled by) but has said little about Charity and University hospitals. Both hospitals were closed and thousands of people, including the first responders who spent 5 days in the lowest pit of hell, many who were black and had college degrees and years of experience, many who lived in Gentilly and New Orleans East and Broadmoor, were fired or demoted. In my mother’s case, she was offered a job a grade lower than her last job in a central LA town already overrun with evacuees with no open apartments or motel rooms; that was her only choice. She was lucky–she was eligible for retirement and took it. Other nurses she worked with, nurses in their late 40s, 50s, even early 60s, found themselves with no job and when they applied to the few hospitals in the NO metro area still up and running, their experience in case management, clinic management, what-have-you was ignored and they were put “on the floor,” working wards for the first time in 15-25 years. Sounds easy but it’s more like marching in a brass band at age 65 after 20 years away–you are physically older and a bit slower though you are wiser and more experienced and an excellent resource. It’s also a huge pay cut. And demotion, like going from distinguished professor to non-tenured instructor. Some have been called back and placed underneath people with less education, less experience or no experieince in that section at all. And though I despise all conspiracy theories and the impressions they give and the facts and truth they distort and obscure, I have heard from several of them that the people called back first and promoted without the requisite education or experience have mostly been white. Sigh.
What did those in Charity go through? September 1, Day 3, director of trauma surgery at Charity, Dr, Norman McSwain (who also runs the medical tents at Jazz Fest pretty much every year) told USA Today
“Somebody needs to come in a hurry,” …. “By ‘in a hurry,’ I don’t mean tomorrow or the next day. They need to get here tonight.
“By tomorrow, we’ll have dead patients simply because they were not evacuated.”
Dr. McSwain’s statement “broke” the heart of Mike Leavitt, secretary of HHS because
“There are tens of thousands of people doing their best to get there in a hurry.”
Dr. McSwain pleaded for help, using the MSM because he felt no one else was listening:
“We have been trying to call the mayor’s office, we have been trying to call the governor’s office … we have tried to use any inside pressure we can. We are turning to you. Please help us”
When I heard that, panic set in. I feared my 63-year-old not-in-the-best-of-health mother might not make it out of Charity alive. It was a rational fear at that time. Other folks weren’t making it out of the city alive.
Inside Charity, it was humid and hot, stinking with urine since there was no plumbing (multiple survivors talk of using buckets, garbage pails and bags for toilets), and food would start to run out soon. My mother says they were all trained for a 3-day stay, that by day 3, replacements would come in to relieve them. No one came.
Day 4, my mother called us a couple of times from an office phone that was still working. Her cell phone didn’t work at all and mine only received calls but she had my brother-in-law’s phone number. She wouldn’t talk about specifics, except the few nurses who “cracked,” as she put it, and were brought up to the psychiatric ward, but did say they were all told to be ready to evacuate at any time. In hindsight, I think it was to keep them all from losing hope. She had no news. We told her about the flooding, about the other hospitals being evacuated, about the slow response, about the Superdome and Convention Center.
Day 5, my mother called at least 5 times, sounding brighter because it looked like they were finally getting out. After being knocked down a pitch-dark stairway and breaking her glasses, tripping and falling, slipping off the lifeboat that floated them out and a few bewildering hours as she was told different places she might be bused or flown to, she got to Houston. It was Day 5 when they started taking out the rest of the patients, when the staff got out, when the doors were locked and folks cried.
…18-wheel trucks rolled in front of the hospital to remove the final patients and personnel late Friday. [my emphasis]
The trucks went to New Orleans’ international airport or to the state capital of Baton Rouge.
The facility — the largest public hospital in the city and a comprehensive trauma center — was accommodating scores of patients Friday before it was emptied.
The move came two days after the same kind of evacuation at nearby Tulane Medical Center. [again my emphasis]
I have not talked to my mother in depth about it. When she and her friends get together or see each other in the mall or talk on the phone, they often “debrief,” as she says. She is not ready to work in another hospital again. And might not be for some time. I wish someone cared about Charity’s story.
Other eyewitness accounts:
- Doctor Endured Worst of Charity–Dr. Michael Garbee’s experiences
- Hospital’s Will to Survive Grew with Floodwaters
- HURRICANE HEROES: Hospital worker gave patients what she had
- Unexpected Necessities — Inside Charity Hospital by Ruth Berggren, M.D.
Was the building unsalvageable? After being empty so long, it probably is now but was it then? Can we really wait until 2011 for another major hospital in the city? What about Level 1 trauma care? Police officers who get shot? Fire fighters injured? What if I get shot?