Tulane physician recounts horrific week at New Orleans hospital following Hurricane Katrina

Shelley Wood

September 23, 2005

New Orleans, LA - When Hurricane Katrina swept into New Orleans spreading pandemonium in its wake, staff and physicians at Tulane Medical Center found themselves in the perilous predicament of having to evacuate frail patients while staving off mounting concerns for their own safety. As Dr Jeff Myers, chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Tulane, writes in a day-by-day description of the five horrific days he spent trapped at Tulane, the experience exposed him to "the best and the worst of the human condition."

On day two, he writes, staff at the hospital realized that a 15-year-old on an LVAD had only 25 minutes left of battery power, a time Myers describes as "the worst, most helpless feeling of the entire week." Ultimately, the boy and an adult LVAD patient were put on a separate, gas-powered generator fueled using gasoline siphoned out of cars parked in the medical center garage.

As Myers describes below, he and his colleagues spent a harrowing four days dealing with an increasing patient load, rioting among patients evacuated to the hospital from the Superdome, a patchy patient-evacuation process hampered by shooters outside the hospital walls, and even a hostage-taking in the hospital. Ultimately, at least 1200 patients were evacuated safely.



In his own words

Despite the hurricane tracking that always goes on, Katrina snuck up on our family a little bit. When we went bed on Friday, Katrina had hit Miami and we all assumed that was that. On Saturday we started to realize that it was getting stronger and heading right for New Orleans. Dahri and the kids waited for the Interstate-10 contraflow to start (both sides of I-10 going west with no eastbound traffic into New Orleans) and headed for my sister's house in Dallas. They spent Saturday night in Shreveport and got to Dallas on Sunday. I spent Saturday night at home and went to the medical school on Sunday to spend the night.

Sunday, August 28

I spent Sunday night in the medical school with a number of other faculty and staff (and families) who had evacuated there. There were a number of children and pets as well. The storm hit hard Sunday night and we lost power and went to generators about 5:00 am on Monday.

Monday, August 29

On Monday everyone rounded on patients and waited for the lights to come back on. I left the medical school Monday afternoon and tried to get across the Mississippi River to my house to spend the night. There was tremendous wind damage around the city but no water at this point. The state police turned me back at the Mississippi River Bridge and I returned to the medical school to spend the night. It's interesting that if I had been allowed to cross, I would have slept at home and thus been on the other side of the river when the levees broke. I would have been unable to get back to the hospital and would have evacuated east on Tuesday.

One decision was made that would come back to haunt us. Seventy patients were identified at the Superdome that needed medical care and were transferred to Tulane and put on the seventh floor. Unfortunately, they were allowed to bring "caregivers" with them. This resulted in a large and eventually rowdy population in the hospital.

Tuesday, August 30

On Tuesday I woke up (again with the intention of going home). I got to the hallway of the medical school and ran into the wife of one of our general surgeons. She looked completely shocked and asked me if I had seen outside—the city had filled with water. At this point we realized we were in trouble. There were well over 1200 people in the medical school/hospital that would need to be evacuated. HCA (Tulane's corporate partner) began to coordinate the evacuation from the hospital. They arranged for 20+ helicopters to begin evacuation of 160+ patients. The priority was the children. Thirty-one children (eight in the pediatric ICU and six in the neonatal ICU) were all in the hospital at this point. The roof adjacent to the hospital was converted to a helipad. The lights were all taken down, which cleared enough room for several helicopters to land at once.

At this point, water had risen and taken out the phones and main generator. One phone in the surgical intensive care unit continued to work (it was wired directly and not through the switchboard), and one of the pediatric intensivists (Leron Finger) was able to continue making arrangements for the evacuation of the kids. At this point we had a 15-year-old on a machine (VAD) that supported his heart, which was unable to function on its own. When the main generators went out, a panicked nurse came running out of the ICU and screamed, "There are only 25 minutes on the VAD battery and then he will die!" This was the worst, most helpless feeling of the entire week. However, he and the other VAD patient (an adult) were put on a separate, individual generator until they could be evacuated. The generators were refilled using gas siphoned from cars in the garage.

 
We now began to have threats from both within the hospital and from the outside. There was near rioting on the seventh floor and a hostage situation elsewhere in the hospital.
 

We now began to have threats from both within the hospital and from the outside. There was near rioting on the seventh floor and a hostage situation elsewhere in the hospital. It really has to be pointed out the incredible job the Tulane police department did throughout this entire thing. They kept looters out that were trying to get over the wall and suppressed a number of situations that came up in the hospital. It was scary as hell hiding in the hallways until they could again secure the building.

Before we could get all of the kids out of the hospital, people began shooting at the helicopters from the street, causing the rescue operations to stop around dark. However, fully an hour later (about 9:30) a chopper from Arkansas Children's landed and took our VAD kid out. True heroes who I think saved this kid's life. We had to move his VAD (about 300 pounds) down the stairs, through the hospital, and out onto the roof of the garage. This took a full 30 minutes. He then had to be hand-pumped by one of the nurses while he was transported to the roof and hooked back up to the VAD in the chopper. Unfortunately the rest of the kids had to be taken back to the hospital until the next day.

Wednesday, August 31

On Wednesday we finally got all of the children evacuated and began in earnest the evacuation of the adult patients. We began to get larger helicopters at this point, including military Blackhawks that could take 10 to 15 people at a time. Boats from the Fish and Wildlife service showed and asked if they could help. They began transporting people to I-10. We later found out that I-10 was complete anarchy with up to 100 000 people there waiting to be transported out. We had no way of knowing this at the time. This was the last we saw of the boats—again, someone started shooting at them and they had to stop.

At this point we had rumors from pilots and other sources of what was going on in the city. The Radisson hotel across the street was housing a large number of staff family members and other Tulane employees. The story was that the hotel had been taken over by armed gangs and that horrible things were happening over there. At this point our chief of pediatric cardiology, Bob Ascuitto, waded across the street in that armpit-high toxic stew to rescue his wife and two kids. He got them back safely but confirmed the stories we had heard about what was going on in the building. Later in the day, the Tulane employees were transported from the Radisson to the hospital for evacuation. The number of people to evacuate was going up instead of down, and our security situation was getting more tenuous.

 
Looters were in the shops on Canal trying on clothes before stealing them.
 

By now we had been watching looters on Canal Street for two days. In the first 24 hours someone had backed a truck up to the Walgreen's on the corner and emptied it. Looters were in the shops on Canal trying on clothes before stealing them. There was something surreal about watching these guys with bags of loot stopping to rest on the flooded police cars before moving on. At the same time we saw families trying to get to dry ground. Children were being floated down the street in Igloo coolers and the elderly were being half-guided/half-dragged through the water.

In the afternoon Chinook helicopters started to land. These could take people out 60 at a time. People in the garage were cheering at the sight of them. The situation began to get complicated by the arrival of patients by boat from Charity Hospital. We lost two patients in the garage and I know many more died over at the hospital. About 35 of their ICU patients got out that day.

This is the point where my cell phone began to work. It was the only consistent communication for the next two and a half days. No other cell phones were working and the satellite phones dropped in were not working well. I got in touch with Dahri, who told me that the governor had announced on TV that Charity had been evacuated! There were over 1000 people inside of Charity, probably 250 of them patients. Dahri then began a phone campaign with Leron's wife Julie and my sister Alana that was truly remarkable. I started to get phone calls on the roof from senators' offices, the Louisiana State Police, the Louisiana National Guard, the local news station in Cleveland, NPR, and CNN. (People magazine called her as well, but it was unclear how they would help get us out of there.)

We had to shut down again at dark due to people firing at helicopters. Not funny anymore.

Thursday September 1

We began evacuating again at 8:00 am. The Tulane police could no longer guarantee our safety in the medical school and everyone was moved in to the hospital. At this point large helicopters were coming frequently and it looked like we might all get out. Then right in the middle of it all, for no reason, the flights stopped. I called Dahri and she told me that it had been announced that Tulane had been successfully evacuated! We still had 400 people in the garage! Dahri activated the network again and we were able to get a few more people out before dark. One of the calls I got was from the local station in Cleveland (set up by our investigative reporter friend Dwayne Pohlman and his wife Amanda). This is the link: http://www.wkyc.com/news/news_article.aspx?storyid=40183.

 
At some point in the evening a Coast Guard helicopter put a Marine sniper on roof. This guy had just returned from Iraq and was not in the mood to put up with any crap whatsoever.
 

Flights stopped again at dark due to shots fired. This was the first time anyone really thought that we might not get out. The hospital could no longer be secured and we had to sleep in the garage. We still had about 360 people at this point. At some point in the evening a Coast Guard helicopter put a Marine sniper on roof. This guy had just returned from Iraq and was not in the mood to put up with any crap whatsoever. Every few minutes he would take up position on the roof and get someone in his sights down on the streets. That night about 4:30 there was a huge explosion in the distance that turned out to be a refinery or storage facility in Chalmette. This was the closest we came to panic in the garage. Everyone was fine, and I realized that these people had been trapped for five days without a fight breaking out, much less the anarchy that other parts of the city had seen. I am still struck by witnessing the best and the worst of the human condition while trapped in that hospital.

I spoke with NPR later that day by cell phone: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4829434.

Friday, September 2

On Friday at 8:00 no helicopters were in sight. I called Dahri again. She had spoken with her brother, John Zenker, at the Pentagon who told her that he had spoken with the guy in charge and the Chinooks were on their way. Within 10 minutes those bad boys were lined up to get us out of there. The last helicopter left the roof around 10:30. As we flew off we got to see the city for the first time. Images that the rest of the country had seen for several days and had time to digest, we were only now seeing. It was really too much to grasp. We were taken to the airport and from there on buses provided by HCA to Lafayette, LA. We had a SWAT team escort for the two-hour trip. A not-so-gentle reminder that just because we had escaped didn't mean things were okay.

We were decontaminated by FEMA in Lafayette. This means that took all my clothes and gave me a pair of underwear, a pair of scrubs, and pair of flip-flops from Old Navy. Oh yeah, and a tetanus shot and a six-pack of Cipro. We were picked up by my buddy Leron's wife, Julie, and his dad. His dad then took us out for steak and cold beer. Great ending to a bad day.

Aftermath

I got to Minneapolis Sunday evening and finally met up with Dahri and the kids after eight days apart. It was September 3, our 16th wedding anniversary, and one of the truly great days of my life.

At least 1200 people were evacuated from Tulane without a fatality.

I did this NPR follow-up from Minnesota:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4834159

Many of you reading this helped in getting me out of there. I can never thank you enough. The phone calls and emails have been overwhelming displays of support. It is unfortunate that it often takes a crisis to make you realize the number of people you have in your corner. I will get to everybody individually in time and hope the story above answers some of your questions in the meantime.

-Dr Jeff Myers


(Dr Myers's account was passed along to theheart.org by a colleague.)

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