They sang gospel songs, held a talent show by flashlight, ducked sniper fire and scavenged drugs and diapers from a flooded pharmacy besieged by looters.
In a collection of essays in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine, doctors detail the harrowing ordeal of being stuck inside crippled hospitals and shelters after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.
Some describe the chaos of having too much of some things — doctors and nurses whose specialties weren’t needed — and too little of others, like batteries and a game plan to provide care. One thoracic surgeon was put to work running a copy machine at a Red Cross field office.
Dr. Gregory Henderson, who normally studies tissue samples at Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, suddenly became the family doctor for 15,000 sun-baked, dehydrated people suffering outside the convention center.
“About every hour, I said a prayer that I would stumble upon another medical professional in the crowd,” but none arrived for three days, he said in an interview.
In the journal, he described an obese diabetic woman in a wheelchair who stopped him and said she thought something was wrong with her legs. When Henderson lifted her housecoat, he saw horrific skin ulcers and gangrenous toes — problems he could not fix.
“That’s OK, honey,” he quoted her as telling him. “I’m old. ... There are some sick babies here — you go worry about them.”
He also sloshed through a flooded street to a Walgreen’s to scrounge for supplies. As police with guns drawn held off looters, other officers helped fill garbage bags with bandages, nutrition supplements and medicines.
Someone in the crowd complained that Henderson was “just going to take everything and leave nothing for us,” but the mob seemed to calm down when he said he was a doctor getting medicines for sick people, Henderson wrote.
“When I got back on dry land, I dropped all the bags and almost collapsed,” he wrote. “Exhausted and filthy ... I realized that raw sewage had gotten into my mouth and eyes,” so he treated himself with antibiotics.
From talent shows to prayer services
At Charity Hospital, where doctors and nurses were stranded for nearly a week with no power or running water, an infectious-disease ward held a talent show to boost morale one night. AIDS patients and tuberculosis sufferers in breathing masks were among those who attended.
A hospital chaplain organized daily prayer services with several gospel singers on staff.
“I will never be able to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ quite the same way again,” infectious-disease specialist Dr. Ruth Berggren wrote.
A day earlier, she had been at the emergency room doorway as her husband, a doctor at another hospital, tried to help evacuate patients by boat. Shooting broke out, and Berggren was nearly stampeded by people running back inside screaming, “Sniper, sniper!”
Berggren was also unnerved by armed, nervous hospital security guards, an overwrought prison guard watching a patient, and a jumpy Marine who went for his gun when startled by her husband.
“I was never afraid of wind, water, fire, hunger or disease,” she wrote. “My moments of fear came when I was confronted by agitated, fearful human beings bearing firearms.”