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The fight to save patients

On Dateline Friday, we return to New Orleans as NBC News begins several days of special coverage. When the levees failed that day, and government failed in the days after, the people of New Orleans quickly discovered the only help they could count on was from each other. And perhaps nowhere did the heroic efforts of a few save more lives than in the forgotten place: Lindy Boggs Medical Center where doctors fought to save desperate and dying patients. Hoda Kotb reports.
Dateline / Nbc

What happened inside the four walls of this hospital last year will remain with Dr. Glenn Johnson for a long time—the images turn over in his mind, reminding him, and haunting him…

The relentless flood that buried a city would strand hundreds of people inside New Orleans hospital Lindy Boggs Medical Center. Over three days, Dr. Johnson and his staff would take extraordinary measures, and face a series of agonizing decisions as they struggled to keep their critically ill patients alive.

Dr. Glenn Johnson, cardiologist, vice chief of staff at Lindy Boggs Medical Center: I’m just thinking, how many will die before we figure out how to get them out of here?

Dr. Johnson’s ordeal began last August 27th—the weekend before katrina hit.  The doctor, a cardiologist and vice chief of staff at Lindy Boggs, had weathered many storms in his 12 years at the hospital, but this one was different.

Dr. Johnson: I had a very bad feeling about the storm. Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: You were scared?Dr. Johnson: I was scared.  And I knew I was heading into something that was not going to be good.

With the Category 5 hurricane barreling towards the city, Dr. Johnson’s instinct told him to evacuate—but his sense of duty drew him to the hospital.

Dr. Johnson: The winds are starting to pick up a little bit, and I’m just thinking “My God, what am I in for? What are my patients in for?”

At Lindy Boggs, things were bustling. About 120 patients and their families were holed up inside a brick four-story building.  Some the staff members also brought family members with them.  After all, what better place to ride out a hurricane than a hospital? Or so they thought.

Dr. Johnson: We’re checking on patients, seeing what our resources are.  See what our staffing looks like. Just trying to settle the place down. We assumed for 48 hours.

On Monday morning, August 29th: Katrina came to New Orleans.

Dr. Johnson: You’d hear the windows all of a sudden exploding on the building.

The people inside Lindy Boggs snapped a few photos of the scene, as the wind and rain raged outside. But by Monday afternoon, it seemed the storm was blowing over.

Dr. Johnson: We were almost elated.  Once the wind started to die down, we looked outside, we saw the amount of water, I’m going, “I’ve seen this before.”

Morning after the storm
But the next morning, Dr. Johnson could not believe his eyes.  A massive flood had surrounded the hospital.

Dr. Johnson: I knew.  I said, “We’re in trouble. We’re in big, big trouble.”

What the doctor didn’t know was that the entire city was in big trouble. Heavy rains flooded Lake Pontchartrain, the levees breached, and water gushed into New Orleans, stranding thousands.

All around Lindy Boggs, frantic neighbors who had been flooded out of their homes began desperately swimming toward the hospital for help.

Dr. Johnson: They began to panic and tried to swim toward the hospital. One of the worst sights was a man with about a 6 to 9 month old in this little inflatable, cheap flimsy thing.  He had the baby inside, he’s trying to make it to the building. He goes under. Kotb: So the baby was on its own for a while.  Dr. Johnson: On its own.

Eventually, the hospital would be overrun with about 500 people from the neighborhood.  With no telephone calls coming in or going out, and with the water steadily rising, Lindy Boggs was quickly becoming an island of desperation. It would be up to Dr. Johnson and his staff to figure out how to save those inside.

Among his patients was 76-year-old Dall Thomas, a heart and kidney patient on dialysis.  Dall’s wife Grace had decided to ride out the storm inside the hospital, thinking it would be one of the safest places.

Grace Thomas, wife of a patient:  I’m going to go to the hospital that has generators.  That will keep us going.  And in three or four days, we’ll all be home again.

In the intensive care unit, another wife, Jessie Lasalle, held vigil next to her 32-year-old husband Carl, who had struggled with illness his whole life.  Carl had just fought his way through a risky liver and kidney transplant.

Jessie Lasalle, wife of a patient: I was just praying that he was gonna make it through, which I knew.  I had faith and I knew God was going to bring him through it.

Jessie sat in the room with her husband, along with the couple’s 5-year-old daughter Alicia.

On the same floor, George Andrews sat with his wife, Lashaira El-Amin.  Lashaira was being treated for a minor infection, but as the flood waters rose, it was a more permanent condition that troubled George: she was paralyzed from the chest down.

George Andrews, husband of a patient: If there’s a situation where we’re going to have to be in water, how am I going to do it with her?

By now, a sea of water separated Lindy Boggs from the rest of the world.  Patients like Dall, Carl and Lashaira, were completely stranded and things were about to get worse. 

As the hours passed, water seeped into the hospital’s basement, flooding the generator. Suddenly, Lindy Boggs lost all power.  They had no elevators, no lights, and something much worse—no electric ventilator machines to help critically ill patients, like transplant patient Carl Lasalle, breathe.

Kotb: When the power went out, your first thought when it came to your husband was what?Jessie Lasalle: My God, the power went out and he was on the ventilator.  What are they going to do?

The doctors and nurses had to find a way to help Carl and the other ventilator patients get air. For a while, they used hand pumps to blow oxygen into the patients’ lungs ... 

Dr. Johnson: Having the nurses sit there with an ambu-bag.  Squeeze the bag in order to get the patient to breathe. Kotb: You’re talking about just squeezing it, and squeezing it. Dr. Johnson: That’s correct.Kotb: And so each squeeze is a breath?Dr. Johnson: That’s correct.

And it wasn’t just the ventilators—when the power went out, dialysis machines that kept kidney patients like Dall Thomas alive shut down too.

Dr. Johnson: They know their clock is ticking.  Cause without dialysis, they will die.Grace Thomas: I just thought, how long can this go on? And I just figured that you know, someway, somehow God’s going to get us through. But I didn’t know how.

Grace could do nothing but sit at her husband’s bedside. Earlier, she had convinced her children to evacuate without her. Now, she was worried and alone. 

Grace Thomas: I sat and looked at him.  And I thought, all of my life, my children have all been with me, whenever I was in trouble. And I said, “Here my husband is dying, and they can’t get to me. There’s no way anyone can get to me."  And I said “I’m just going to have to face this alone.”

Down the hall, 48-year-old George Andrews also sat, worried about his paralyzed wife Lashaira.  With water surrounding the hospital, George feared that it would be impossible to get her out.

George Andrews: I could’ve swam out of there. I could, even after everything was over and the water came up. But my concern was how am I going to do this with Lashaira? How can I get her out of this?Dr. Johnson: The water, originally from the storm, was coming down our stairwells like a river.

It was a scene playing out all over the city of New Orleans, which plunged into utter chaos and catastrophe as the days went on. People who’d been unable to get out were left stranded, dehydrated and dying.

At Lindy Boggs, the rising water began rushing onto the first floor.  With no working elevators, the staff ran to move the patients up the stairwells.

Michael Gerhold, head of radiology, helped hand carry the patients.

Michael Gerhold, head of radiology: You just physically hold ‘em, and grab ‘em.  And, bring ‘em up. We had four people to a patient sometimes.

24 hours after the hurricane, Lindy Boggs had been reduced to a dark and lonely building completely cut off from the outside world. With no phone service, the people inside tried to get a few text messages out to friends and family, asking for help. They had no way of knowing the people they were messaging probably needed saving themselves. 

Dr. Johnson: That’s when we realized - we’re looking at each other and we’re thinking, there’s nothing going on here.  We’re in trouble.Kotb: No one’s coming to get us?Dr. Johnson: We’re not even a blip on their radar.  Nothing. 

24 hours after Katrina hit
The situation in New Orleans was becoming desperate. A stunned nation watched as scenes of misery and heartbreak played out, hour after hour.

Inside Lindy Boggs Hospital, they didn’t know about any of that. They had no TVs, no radios, no working phones. But the communication black out was only the beginning of their problems. They had no clean running water, no way to dispose of waste, and the food was running low. And the heat became unbearable as it rose to about 104 degrees inside the building.

Dr. Glenn Johnson: One basically brought a towel.  Just kept wiping your face, wringing out the towel.  Trying to change scrubs or your clothes.  They were wet within ten minutes. Hoda Kotb: So you were soaked from your head to your toes?Dr. Johnson: My socks were squishing with sweat, quite honestly, that’s how hot it was.

And in that heat, the staff of about 145 had to hustle—the internal telephone and paging system was shut down. Dr. Johnson and his staff had to rush up slippery stairways and down darkened hallways just to speak to one another. They struggled to read charts and give injections in the dark. Dr. Johnson turned the conference room into a “war room” where the staff met to solve problems. And then, through the chaos, they heard the sound of help...

... rescue choppers in the air above. So, like so many other desperate people in New Orleans, they headed for the roof to plead for help.

Dr. Johnson: We said, “All right, let’s start painting signs. Took cardboard and went on the roof saying—you know, we started politely--  ‘SOS, Need Medicine. water, airdrop.”  That brought little in the way of any attention. So we ramped it up a little bit. I was inflating the numbers, you know, “30 people died today - 50 predict - 50 for tomorrow. Help.”

The signs may have been an exaggeration, but inside the hospital, patients were dying.  The first victims, of course, were the frail and elderly.

Dr. Johnson: It was just killing me on the inside, quite honestly, to see it because I felt so helpless.

To make matters worse, the hospital’s morgue had flooded.

Dr. Johnson: So we had to take our emergency room, turn that into a morgue.  Well, we’re in 104 degree heat. And no body bags.  So it’s not a very pleasant scenario.

Their only hope was rescue. Surely someone would be coming? Someone would take pity on a hospital filled with patients? But one by one, they saw helicopters go to other buildings and rescue other people, but not them.  Then, the realization began to dawn that the people of Lindy Boggs were on their own.

Dr. Johnson: We realized we’re in trouble. No one’s coming.  And then we start having to come up with a contingency plans.  We have to take care of ourselves, how are we gonna do this?

Dr. Johnson was especially worried about a patient he had treated for years— Dall Thomas, who desperately needed dialysis to survive.

Kotb: You have a real connection to him. So you’re looking at him face to face—he needs you.  Dr. Johnson: He kept asking, he says “Glenn, what are we gonna do here? What’s going on?” I’d say, “We’re working on it,” or, “we think they’ll be here tomorrow.”

Dr. Johnson was struck by Dall and Grace’s kindness. He wanted to protect them, but couldn’t.

Kotb: For any of us, I think, we would have felt helpless. But let me ask you personally for you—you’re a guy who solves problems.  You’re a guy who makes sick people well.  And here you are, in a way, somewhat helpless yourself.  How did you handle that?Dr. Johnson: If you’re asking me on a personal level—we were lucky in that we had a priest there. We were saying mass and prayer service. I couldn’t go. Because I knew if I broke down there, it would not be good for the staff. And so my attitude was, I’d go to my room, shut the door, and throw up.  If you want to know what was going on, that’s what was going on.

In a world turned upside down, husbands and wives huddled together in the patients rooms consoling each other.

George Andrews barely left his paralyzed wife Lashaira’s side. 

George Andrews, husband of patient: I’m just trying to stay close to her and trying to talk to her and trying to keep her calm, because she’s frightened, she was frightened. She said ‘I’m scared.’ She calls me ‘Poppy.’  She said, ‘I’m scared Poppy.’

As the water surrounding the building continued to rise, George became more and more worried about how Lashaira would be able to get out. But Lashaira had one huge advantage—her husband George.

George Andrews: We got here together, we’re leaving here together. I don’t care if a tornado knocks on the window with my name on it. As long as I’m breathing, I’m gonna be here. We’re in this together, chair or not.

In the ICU, Jessie Lasalle reassured her husband Carl, who had just undergone a liver and kidney transplant and was drifting in and out of awareness.

Jessie Lasalle: I would tell him “I love you, you know, we’re going to be all right.”

But Carl wasn’t the only one she was concerned about: the dark, the heat, the anxiety, were all getting to her 5-year-old daughter Alicia. 

Jessie Lasalle: She would cry at night. She would cry. I would have to rock her to sleep and sing her some lullabies. Kotb: What did you say when she asked you about her dad?Dr. Johnson: I said he was gonna be all right, and just, ‘God answers children’s prayers. So just keep praying for him.’Kotb: What did she say when she prayed?Dr. Johnson: She’d say, ‘God please protect my Daddy.’

If any place needed divine intervention, it was Lindy Boggs. By Tuesday afternoon, the hospital staff had been trying to care for patients in the dark, grueling heat for hours.

And now, they would face the next big crisis—the staff worried that the medicine might run out.

They didn’t teach any of this at medical school. Dr. Johnson had no idea then what terrible decisions lay ahead, as he sat in his hospital and wondered... where on earth was the cavalry?

Dr. Johnson: I’m sitting there going, I cannot believe this.  I’m in the United States. I’m not in Somalia, I’m not in Rwanda.  How can this be happening?  And felt betrayed.  I felt betrayed by my government.

Surrounded by water, with about 120 patients to care for, Dr. Johnson and his staff realized they would have to improvise a way to deal with their unimaginable situation.   One of the biggest worries was whether they had enough medicine to last them, which got some of them, including radiologist Michael Gerhold, thinking.

Michael Gerhold, head of radiology: Where do you get medicine from? Doctor’s offices. Everybody’s got free samples, they’ve got rooms full of them.

It just so happened the building right next to Lindy Boggs was full of doctor’s offices. But there was just one problem—water between the two buildings was now about five feet high.  But that didn’t stop Michael Gerhold from taking the first of many extraordinary steps he would take in those days.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: You’re walking through water to get that medicine?Gerhold: Yeah. Kotb: When you were partway there in that water, were you looking around, going, “What is going on?”Gerhold: You do what you got to do. I mean, that’s where the medicine was.  That’s what we needed at the time.

The staffers stuffed the medicine into garbage bags that floated behind them.  They made three runs, risking their own health in the filthy water. As soon as Dr. Johnson got the extra medicine, he took it to the hospital’s pharmacy, and then he headed for the war room. There, he and his staff came up with a new game plan.  There would be no more waiting for rescue—the time had come for them to get everyone out of Lindy Boggs any way they could. 

Dr. Glenn Johnson: We decided that maybe, if we had boats, that would be a good thing. Kotb: To boat the patients out of there?Dr. Johnson: To boat patients—to go out and try and see if we can’t take a boat out to find help.  So, we borrowed a few boats.Kotb: And by borrowed you mean?Dr. Johnson: We borrowed.

Radiologist Michael Gerhold and some others set off in a small rowboat for another parking garage where some boats were stored. They got inside, got the boats... but not the keys.

Gerhold:  I’m creative, I’m innovative.  We hot-wired the boats, had ‘em going –Kotb: You what?Gerhold: Hot wired them. Kotb: How did you know how to do that?Gerhold: I’ve built all kinds of electrical stuff.

While Michael Gerhold and the others ferried boats back to Lindy Boggs and parked them outside, Dr. Johnson rushed about inside the hospital, going from room to room to check on patients.

George Andrews, patient: If you did not hear him, you saw him. If you didn’t see him, you heard him.  And he was snapping orders. And he was concerned about everybody there.

Especially the dialysis patients. Dr. Johnson knew those patients were in a life and death race against time.  He tried to keep Dall Thomas going…

Dr. Johnson: I can tell he was starting to get really weak.  He was getting more short of breath.  I could hear fluid in his lungs. And I knew, I knew he was getting into trouble. Kotb: And there was nothing you could do for him?Dr. Johnson: Not a thing I could do.

Nothing, but try to give him hope.  Dr. Johnson told Dall a plan was in the works to evacuate the building, and then Dall asked a heartbreaking question that Dr. Johnson would have to face time and time again in the hours ahead.

Grace Thomas, wife of patient: Dall asked him, "Dr. Johnson, if you take me out, can my wife go with me?"Dr. Johnson: The worst part was I have to tell him “Your wife can’t come right now. So I have to split this husband and wife who have been together for years.  That was hard. That was hard.”Grace Thomas: And this is when my heart broke for him because Dr. Johnson had to say ‘No, I can only take the patients.’ He says ‘Dall you’ve got to realize.’ I said, ‘Dr. Johnson, I know that. Don’t worry. He’s the one you’ve got to take care of.’Kotb: Can I say what’s kind of remarkable about you, just listening to this? That you felt sorry for Dr. Johnson. Grace Thomas: Oh, my heart broke for him.  Can you imagine a doctor, having to say that? This doctor was so worried about us.  And, my heart broke.  He was sweating, he was hot, and he was tired.

Dr. Johnson’s concern grew with each passing hour. What would happen to the patients, many of them critically ill? Would they be able to evacuate before it was too late?  How many more would he have to watch die?

Dr. Johnson: I was just nauseous with what I was seeing, watching people die. It was horrible.

He had no idea that rescue was just around the corner, but with it would come the most heartbreaking choices he had ever faced…

Dr. Johnson: I’m thinking this shouldn’t have to come to this.  It should never have had to come to this.

Wednesday: two days after the hurricane
A risky paddling trip had paid off—the hospital finally had some boats.  In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, a decision was made. Rather than take the patients out first, as Dr. Johnson had assumed would happen, they began to evacuate family members—starting with women and children.

Jessie sent her daughter Alicia ahead with her husband’s mother.

Jessie Lasalle, wife of patient: She was crying. I told her, “Don’t cry. Keep praying, and it’s going to be alright.”

Jessie decided to stay with Carl, who was still semi-conscious following his transplant surgery.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: Life’s about choices.  You made a choice.Jessie Lasalle: Yes I did. Kotb: To stay with your husband. Knowing that maybe he wouldn’t get out and you wouldn’t get out. Jessie Lasalle: Right.Kotb: How difficult was that choice Jessie?Jessie Lasalle: It was difficult.  But I knew I would be with him where I belonged. It was hard.

There would be many hard choices that morning. Grace Thomas bumped into a nurse in the hallway outside her husband’s room.

Grace Thomas, wife of patient: She said ‘Miss Thomas, we’re getting ready to evacuate.  Do you want to go?’  And I said, ‘Well, can I wait and go with my husband?’ And she said, ‘No you can’t.’ And I said, ‘Can I go talk to my husband?’  She says, ‘You have four minutes.’

Grace, who a short time ago thought she’d be left behind, would actually be going first.  Now this wife, who’d been at her husband’s side for more than 50 years, 7 children, and two days of hell, would have to leave him if she wanted to get out.

Grace Thomas: I told him goodbye, and said I hope we meet again and went into the hall. Kotb: Did you think that that was the last time?Grace Thomas: (nods yes)

Grace was led down the dark, slippery stairs, and climbed aboard a small boat. But all she could do was wonder—how would Dall—so frail and sick—ever make it out?

Grace Thomas: He can’t walk that well.  And going down three flights of steps in the dark, he’d never make it.  So, I had resigned myself by then that I was on my own.

But then suddenly, down the dark, steaming, wet hallways of Lindy Boggs, came a miracle. 

Dr. Glenn Johnson: The word gets out—there are firemen that have arrived.  And all I’m thinking is “Thank God, thank God.” Captain Kerry Foster, Shreveport firefighter: I’ll never forget this. They said, “How in the world did you find us? How did you even know we were here?”  They had no communications whatsoever.

It was Wednesday—rescuers had been dispatched to help evacuate some of New Orleans hospitals. Firefighters from Shreveport, Louisiana had found their way to Lindy Boggs by boat.  Captain Kerry Foster, John Gimnich and Chris Shamburger were part of the rescue team.

Chris Shamburger, firefighter: This is a full blown MCI.

MCI: Mass Casualty Incident. The firefighters immediately realized it was going to be a long and difficult evacuation. The patients would have to wade out onto rescue boats, then wait on a dry strip of land until a helicopter picked them up.  Rescuers worried that some of the more frail patients would not survive the trip. They also knew they couldn’t move all of the 120 patients at once. 

Now, the same firefighters and doctors who normally rushed patients to safety, would have to decide who could go first and who would have to wait. Of all the decisions made at Lindy Boggs that day, this would be the most difficult.

Shamburger: We went with the letters A, B and C.Kotb: What did ‘A’ mean?Shamburger: Ambulatory, walking, just like me and you.

The patients marked “A” would get to go first. B’s would go second.

Kotb: What was ‘B’?Shamburger: ‘B’ was wheelchair, just basically patients that they could sit up. Kotb: ‘C’?Shamburger: Critical. 

“C’s”, the most critical and helpless patients of all, would have to stay at the hospital and wait until more help arrived.

Kotb: Chris, why is it that the patients who were the worst off, the ones who needed the care most desperately, were the ones who were going to be the last to be evacuated?Shamburger:  In an MCI, that’s the way things are done.

When facing such a huge catastrophe, the firefighters say they must rescue as many people as they can as quickly as they can. After the majority of the patients leave, then they can concentrate on the more critical ones, who take much longer to move.

It was common sense, it was textbook triage... and it was absolutely gut-wrenching.

Shamburger: I don’t wish that upon nobody—to go through a hospital saying, “You can go, you can go, you’re staying.” We don’t do that. We’re the guys that bring sick people or hurt people to a hospital to get better. Dr. Johnson: It’s just very hard to go and start marking people like cattle.

At first, they pinned tags on the patients.  But the tags ran out ...

Kotb: So how did you give those markings?Dr. Johnson: Hoda, it literally went on peoples’ foreheads with a marks-a-lot, and had to mark. And that was probably my most horrific experience. And I mean, I’m just having horrible thoughts like, you know, “Is this what happened like at Auschwitz or something” you know, where people were just marked like cattle.  That was probably my single worst, single worst memory.

One by one, the patients made their way out to the boats. Dall Thomas, desperately in need of dialysis, was given a triage letter.

Kotb: So Dall, what did he get?Dr. Johnson: I gave him an ‘A.’ The only thing is I had to warn him “You have to stand Dall.” And I could tell he was tiring out, and I said “You’ve got to stand. You’ve got to walk. You’ve got to get out of here.” 

Dall got to his feet, and managed to head out of his room.  Back in the ICU, rescuers tagged Carl—who was too ill to even sit up—with a “C” for critical.  His wife Jessie, along with another family, begged to have their critically ill loved ones taken immediately. But the rescuers couldn’t.

Jessie Lasalle: We was hollering and screaming, ‘How can y’all do this?’  You are inhuman people, you’re treating us worse than dogs. Kotb: The triage system—by marking patients a certain way, I mean it’s playing God in a way. Capt. Foster: We’ve learned that in a mass casualty incident where you have so many patients, you have to make that decision that the one that you know you can save is the one you have to transport.

On top of that, the firefighters knew the patients were not going directly to another New Orleans hospital—they were all flooded.  The most critically ill, they say, were better off waiting at Lindy Boggs, where they were still on high ground, had some treatment available, and could wait until fully equipped medevac choppers arrived. 

Back in Lashaira’s room, George says his paralyzed wife was tagged with a ‘C’, and he was being urged to go ahead without Lashaira, who would have to be moved later. But he had other plans.

George Andrews: I wasn’t leaving without her.  And I told them that.  I made that clear.  I’m not going without her.  If I go down those stairs, she’s coming with me.  If she goes down those stairs, I’m going with her.  Dr. Johnson: I tried to explain to the husband, “She can’t walk. If she can’t walk, I can’t take her.” He just looks at me.  He says “Doctor, he says I’ll carry her.”  I told him, if you’ll carry her, I’ll help. By this time, I’m getting toward the end of the triage.  I couldn’t do it anymore. I said, I said that’s it. I’m going to get this one patient out of there and maybe that’s, you know, my one act of mercy for the day, I don’t know.

Dr. Johnson changed Lashaira’s ‘C,’ to an ‘A.’

George Andrews: I’m glad he was there to help me. Cause I wouldn’t have gotten through it without him.

Now it was up to George, a man of medium height and build, to carry Lashaira—over 6 feet tall and more than 200 pounds.  George scooped Lashaira up in both arms, and carried her down several flights of stairs in the dark. 

George Andrews: We almost fell. We got to the last step.  And I mis-stepped. But the firemen were there.  They actually caught us. They caught us and we went down to a sitting position. And I was exhausted. I’m telling you. I was done. Totally done.

Finally, 48 hours after the rain came, and the evacuation was underway. But in the midst of it all, Captain Foster heard his next orders crackle over the radio, and felt a pit form in his stomach.

Capt. Foster: Well, my heart sank.  I mean, my heart sank really bad.

By now, the evacuation of Lindy Boggs was in full swing. Still, it was an arduous process, and rescuers knew they needed much more time to get everybody out. But then, about six hours into the evacuation, Captain Kerry Foster received a new set of orders.

Capt. Foster, firefighter: Basically being told to pack our things and leave.

The reason? Reports of gunfire and violent looting in the city. The command post decided to pull the rescuers back before sundown.  The firefighters had been prepared to stay until everyone got out—but now, they were being ordered to leave. 

Capt. Foster: Obviously, if you don’t take care of your own team, you can’t expect to take care of anybody else.  So that has to be rule #1.

Firefighters are used to rules, they’re used to a chain of command, and they’re also used to keeping people alive. Captain Foster was not leaving without a fight.

Capt. Foster:  I was in tears.  I mean, I was just, I was frantic.  I was begging for more time.

He could not convince his commanding officers to let him stay, but he did buy some time—an extra 45 minutes to move patients.

Dr. Glenn Johnson: That’s when the urgency set in talking about loading these people onto the boats. And I’m physically grabbing them and throwing them, sliding them down these wet boats like a piece of wood or something trying to get as many out knowing time—loading time is absolutely of the essence.

By 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening, the firefighters’ hard work had paid off - they’d evacuated about 400 people, including most of the more than 120 patients. Left behind were the patients deemed too ill to move.

In the ICU, Jessie waited with her husband Carl, who had been tagged with a “C”,  while a firefighter made a final sweep through her floor.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: When that fireman was walking away. And you were watching him walk away…Jessie Lasalle: If I would have had a gun I would have shot him though. I woulda really shot him. I’d a probably killed myself too.Capt. Foster: I don’t think there is anything you can say to them that they will understand.  We did the best job we could.  And we moved a lot of people and saved a lot of people.  I think we honestly believe we did.  It doesn’t sit well that anybody was left behind.

And so, a handful of doctors made the brave decision to stay behind with the critical patients, while Dr. Johnson climbed aboard the chopper to help the patients who were evacuated that day.  As the helicopter lifted away, Dr. Johnson got his first glimpse of the massive flooding. He was relieved to be leaving Lindy Boggs until he saw where he and his patients were being dropped off—on the side of a highway, with hundreds of other evacuees.

Dr. Johnson: It was chaos, absolute chaos.  And I’m thinking, “My god, I’m going from the frying pan, I’m in the fire.” 

It was a rescue that came with a price. Some of his patients, the doctor says, did not survive the transfer. And now, the exhausted and drained doctor would have to worry not only about his patients, but a whole group of other patients from other hospitals who had been left on the highway.

Dr. Johnson: The gentleman that was in charge, and I forget the physician’s name, he was exhausted.  I mean, I’m exhausted, but I’ve been there, I don’t know—an hour, two hours, not that long—he hands me the radio, and says, “Look, I’ve gotta get some sleep.  Here’s the radio, you’re in charge,” and walks off.Kotb: So, you were now in charge of the triage center?Dr. Johnson: That’s correct.  Unbelievable, and I’m just thinking, “This is the worst nightmare I’ve ever had, and it’s not looking like it wants to end.” 

The nightmare was continuing at Lindy Boggs as well. The official rescue might have been over, but now, an improvised rescue was underway.  Radiologist Michael Gerhold, the man who had helped commandeer the boats, was guarding those boats closely, and he wasn’t leaving without the critically ill patients, like Jessie’s husband Carl.

Michael Gerhold, director of radiology: We said, we’re going to bring him with us, okay?  That I guarantee you. Kotb: You were going to bring Carl with you?Gerhold: That’s right. Kotb: How did you know for sure that that was going to happen?Gerhold: Because I have the keys to the boat, Hoda.  We’re going to take him with us, ok?Jessie Lasalle, wife of patient: He was an angel to me, he was my angel, he’s the one who helped us.

Early Thursday morning, the remaining hospital staff gingerly brought the critical patients down to the boats.

As luck would have it, a chopper happened to land nearby, and the pilot agreed to evacuate the patients.  Finally, Carl and Jessie Lasalle were leaving Lindy Boggs.

Kotb: What was it like being lifted up?Jessie Lasalle: Oh my God, I was happy to get out of there.  

Jessie and Carl were among the last to be saved from Lindy Boggs. Finally, the hospital was emptied.

Weeks later, Jessie Lasalle saw Michael Gerhold again, this time at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas where her husband Carl was taken.

At first, Carl seemed to be doing well.

Jessie Lasalle: That next day, they gave him his dialysis and he looked 100 percent better than he did.

After Katrina, life and death
Four weeks after he was evacuated, Carl couldn’t hold on any longer. He passed away on October 7th.

But in the midst of all the tragedy, some families would have reason to rejoice.

Dall Thomas, Lindy Boggs patient: I didn’t think I was going to die in that place.

66-year-old Dall Thomas made it. He was evacuated to Houston, where he immediately received the dialysis he so desperately needed.

Kotb: What was the toughest part for you within the hospital before you left? Dall Thomas: I would have said, physically I’d say going down the steps.  As you can see, I have trouble walking.  But once I got out there, I got in the boat and I waded ashore and I got in the helicopter.  So I did okay, I guess.Kotb: You did more than okay.  (laughter)

George and Lashaira also made it out only to find that their New Orleans home was completely flooded. Katrina took everything they had, except each other.

Lashaira Andrews, Lindy Boggs patient: I’d have bet my life, he was not going to leave me. We were going to leave together.

George says he will never forget Dr. Johnson.

George Andrews, Lashaira's husband: He got us out of there. He’s the reason we’re sitting in this house right now. We went through a war together, and we won.

But sadly, not everyone made it out.  In all, authorities say 27 bodies were removed from Lindy Boggs and two independent nursing homes housed in the same building.

In the weeks to come, the story of what happened inside New Orleans hospitals would be told in many different ways. There were stories of heroism and sacrifice, and also stories of chaos. There were even stories of mercy killings.  Later, the Louisiana Attorney Generals’ office launched an investigation into some of New Orleans hospitals, including Lindy Boggs.Tenet, the company that owns Lindy Boggs, says it is cooperating fully with the investigation.

As for Dr. Johnson, he says his staff worked bravely to help all the patients.

Dr. Johnson: I saw the best, I think, the best in my staff. People just going so far above and beyond their call of duty in order to tend to the patients.

The doctor thinks often about those days at Lindy Boggs, of the men and women who helped him endure it all. He has since returned to New Orleans to re-establish his private practice—determined to be among those who help the great city rise again.

Dr. Johnson: No question about it.  It’s my city.  It’s where my patients are, that’s where my friends are.  That’s where some of the best staff, medical staff in the world live and work.  That’s where I’m going.