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When Katrina got tough, nurses got inventive

Staff at New Orleans' major hospitals have worked without a break since they were locked in by Katrina’s furious winds and the fast floods that followed when the levees broke.
/ Source: Reuters

The 3,000 people packed into East Jefferson General Hospital just outside New Orleans could not stay away from the windows, fascinated to see Hurricane Katrina blow over trees and batter buildings.

“By morning we saw the water rising. That was when we saw the nursing home across the street was still occupied,” said  Beverly Marino, a nurse in the hospital’s emergency department.

Marino and her fellow emergency department staff have heard the horror stories of 34 frail patients left in a nursing home to drown, of looting and of murder in their hometown.

But their own tales are of heroism and inventiveness.

The distressed East Jefferson staff had to wait until the water stopped rising to wade through chest-deep water and get the elderly residents and their caretakers out of the one-story apartment-style building across the street from the emergency department ramp.

“They had one fan. They had a dog over there. They had the one fan on the dog,” Marino said.

“We bathed them, changed them and got them on a bus,” Marino added.

“One lady said 'I’m going on a bus, I’m going on a bus — I have to get my good dress on.' They (the rescuers) were rooting around in her closet for the good dress.”

Of 12 New Orleans area hospitals, three main suburban centers were not shut down by the Aug. 29 hurricane.

Working around the clock
Staff at East Jefferson, the West Jefferson Medical Center and the Ochsner Clinic have worked without a break since they were locked in by Katrina’s furious winds and the fast floods that followed when the levees broke.

From the time Katrina blew out services Monday, until power was restored Thursday, they improvised.

Linda Strong, a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at West Jefferson, said they used red plastic biohazard bags as toilets.

“We were so proud of our waste management. We didn’t want to mess up the sewage system,” Strong laughed.

Neonatal nurse Darlene Leonard said they poked holes in bags, filled them with water, and used them to shower.

“We made a clothesline in the circumcision room,” said Kelli Arnold, another nurse in the intensive care unit for premature babies.

Displaced parents
One baby went home Wednesday — Kirk Tassin, born to a pair of deputy sheriffs who lost their house in the storm yet had to keep working.

There are eight newborns left in West Jefferson’s neonatal intensive care unit. Only one has a parent in town.

The rest were forced to evacuate, leaving the tiny infants in the care of the nurses. “We have some as far as Atlanta, Ft. Worth, Texas, Houston,” nurse Doris Sinotte said.

“But the nurses have totally adopted them.”

Many staff slept in the hospitals, finding spaces wherever they could, for two weeks straight.

Connie Revels, the West Jefferson emergency department coordinator, brought her three cats to work the day before the storm hit, and employees set up a kennel. “At one point people had 40 to 50 dogs and cats,” Revels said.

The kennel is still there, filled with the pets of displaced hospital workers.

East Jefferson also set up a day-care center for the children of employees, which is still operating. “We are going to have child care here for months until all of those businesses are back and functioning,” said Englade. “We are the community for our staff, because we have to be here. We have to be functioning.”