Published August 30, 2005
| Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS – The hospital is crowded and hot. Surgeries go on with the help of generators. A teen arrives by boat after giving birth in a hotel. And outside, a steady stream of homeless, frightened people seek refuge.
This was the scene Tuesday at New Orleans' Ochsner Clinic (search), the eye of the hurricane as far as medical care is concerned.
Federal officials said that 2,500 patients in the drowning city were being evacuated because at least seven hospitals in Orleans Parish (search) were threatened by the loss of their power generators and other problems.
Perched a lofty 8 feet above sea level in Jefferson Parish (search), Ochsner is one of the few in the area still up and running.
"We don't have unlimited capacity. We are trying to take in only those patients with life-threatening illnesses," Dr. Joe Guarisco, director of the emergency department, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
On Tuesday, that included two near-fatal electrocutions of people who tried to return to flooded areas, and others who were injured by flying glass when wind and water smashed their shelters.
Even at the clinic, broken glass littered some areas, and patients and staff alike had fallen on floors slick with hurricane waters. With electricity and air conditioning out, generators were providing the only power. Some areas had no working elevators or phones.
But there was ample water, food, blood and medical supplies to do everything needed, and enough power to keep medical machinery humming, hospital officials said, crediting the plans and preparations made before the storm hit.
"I'm proud to tell you that, things are going — under the circumstances — really well," said nurse Jackie Lupo, director of labor and delivery.
Several women gave birth during the ordeal, each baby announced with a tune over the loudspeaker.
"Nobody named one Katrina yet," said clinic spokeswoman Katherine Voss.
Sixteen-year-old Shakia Cooper and her family left New Orleans on Sunday and checked into a Day's Inn near Interstate 10 where they thought they'd be safe. Then came the rain ... and labor pains.
Her mother, Lisa Cooper, called 911, but was told rescuers couldn't reach the flooded hotel. A nurse who was staying there helped deliver the baby while the nurse's husband waded through the water to reach National Guardsmen on the highway.
"They came and got us in a boat," said the elder Cooper, who accompanied her daughter and her newborn grandson to Ochsner after the birth early Tuesday morning.
Guarisco worries about people stranded and unable to get to a hospital. There were about 400 patients Tuesday, but room for 580 at the clinic, which is affiliated with Louisiana State and Tulane universities.
There were no emergency communications between hospitals, and Guarisco, like others, had heard horror stories like one reported by the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Charity Hospital had been forced to manually ventilate patients after electricity and backup generators failed.
Like much of the staff, Guarisco has been on duty since Sunday. His wife, director of information technologies at the clinic, also is considered essential staff, so the couple brought their children, ages 3 and 11, to work with them.
Guarisco said he left briefly on Tuesday around noon and walked a mile to check on their home, which suffered some flooding but only mild damage.
"It looks like a Steven Spielberg movie set out there," he said. "The only people you see are people with shotguns protecting their property."
Other workers are distraught at not being able to make contact with relatives or go home; some don't even know if "home" still exists.
"People who handle disasters become victims, too," Guarisco said.