Survival among sick and dead

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

When the storm howling outside blew in the hospital's windows, fires somehow erupted in the shaking building and water began furiously filling the first floor and then the second, right then - that was the moment Christa Alsup, a labor and delivery nurse at a New Orleans hospital, thought she would die.

Sitting on the floor behind a patient's door, in the dark, with no idea where her 11-year-old daughter was, she fumbled with her cell phone and spoke to her family in Baltimore.

"So they could, you know, know that in the end I was thinking of somebody," the 35-year-old said yesterday.

After a five-day nightmare stranded in a submerged city at a hospital without power, little food and patients dying who should have lived, Alsup had made it safely to the Baltimore home of her aunt and uncle, Khadijah and Jerome Johnson.

On Friday she and other medical staff at Methodist Hospital in New Orleans East were rescued from its rooftop by a Blackhawk helicopter.

Expecting the hurricane, Alsup went to work last Sunday after leaving her daughter with her parents at the hospital across town where her father worked. Her parents and child were moved to Baton Rouge, where they are stuck.

Alsup spoke to her daughter yesterday for the first time since Sunday. Though for days she had no idea whether her only child was OK, she refused to dwell on it, focusing on keeping people at the hospital alive.

Eventually, more than 600 people, including refugees, packed into the darkened institution.

"Once the power goes off and your backup generator cuts off, you have no source of life," she said. "You try to squeeze life into people by hand. For hours and hours and hours."

Despite their efforts, patients died. They had nowhere to put them and no air conditioning. After a while, the bodies festered in the heat.

Overtaxed toilets overflowed. Alsup and others laid sheets on the floor for examinations, the best excuse for sanitary they had.

"If you've never smelled death, I can't tell you what it smells like," she says.

The staff grabbed the ends of sheets to awkwardly carry the sickest patients up flights of stairs to the roof, where helicopters came to ferry them to safer locations.

"There was one woman," Alsup said. "She had a spot on a helicopter. She was on her way out. She stopped breathing on the stairs."

Newborns got on helicopters, but their mothers had to stay behind.

Subsisting on rationed cafeteria food, a biscuit and a half-piece of bacon for breakfast, Alsup worked "until you couldn't take it anymore," then took a nap and then worked more.

One man who lived near the hospital paddled up to the doorstep in a refrigerator with a woman in labor.

"She had a beautiful baby boy," Alsup said. "We nicknamed him Icebox."

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