Airport turns into a hospital for the desperate

Hundreds line up

lack of medicine leads to deaths

`You have to make ... horrible choices'

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - A makeshift hospital has taken form in this city's international airport, where the wounded lie on cots on the floor and medical personnel struggle to keep pace with the influx of patients who have gone days without medicine or treatment and are often on the verge of death.

Not all of them make it.

"People are dying because they haven't had their meds," said a social worker who came from New York to help and who declined to give her name. "Six days without medicine, if you are a diabetic, you get very sick. There's no place to send them either. It's very said. It's breaking our hearts."

About 20 people died at the airport hospital last week, said Dr. Erik Larsen of White Plains, N.Y., who was helping coordinate the effort here.

Some were on the list for a liver transplant and couldn't survive without medication, he said. Others were dialysis patients. The airport does not have equipment to provide dialysis.

"A lot of people died before they got here. People died when they got here," Larsen said. "There are a significant number of people who are expected to die. In any disaster situation, you have to make choices, horrible choices about who you can and cannot save."

While the lifesaving functions of a hospital are being carried out in the airport's west terminal, the east terminal has become a shelter for hundreds of people who have nowhere else to go. They are finally being evacuated by bus and airplane to Dallas and San Antonio, after enduring deplorable living conditions at the airport.

Trash was strewn through the terminal and behind ticket counters, and the floors were black with filth and grime. Used diapers were left on the floor and feces were smeared in the men's restroom. Tired refugees carried their belongings and plastic bags, their clothes dirty and their feet caked in mud.

The airport hospital has treated thousands of patients evacuated from New Orleans hospitals without power or water. At times last week, the line of people waiting for treatment stretched out of the terminal and onto the airport road. About 700 patients were at the airport yesterday; exact numbers were hard to come by.

"It's either you watch people die or you write down information," Larsen said. "So we decided to try to save people."

Color-coded triage

Three tents have been set up in the airport's west terminal: red, for those who could lose life, limbs or eyesight in one to two hours, such as heart attack victims and those with severed fingers or hands; yellow, for those whose conditions could deteriorate to a critical level in four to six hours; and green for those with minor injuries.

The most critical patients are sent by helicopter to functioning hospitals in the region. Other patients are evacuated en masse on large-frame military

transport planes, including C-17 and C-130 planes. Patients are not supposed to be at the airport long, but several interviewed yesterday reported waits of one or two days.

Lorraine McDuell was taken to the airport from Meadowcrest Hospital in Gretna, outside New Orleans. She had checked into the hospital with severe gastroenteritis before the hurricane hit.

McDuell, 56, has gone almost a week without her medicine. Friday night, she said, she vomited multiple times while sleeping on the baggage carousel.

"You know how they look? Try sleeping on them. Oooh, it was rough," she said.

She said she had to badger medical workers to be sent to the terminal upstairs to obtain treatment. "If you're downstairs, it's like you have to die to come up here," she said.

She was pleading for three of her friends, who have gone three days without insulin, to be brought upstairs. By yesterday afternoon, they were.

"I just kept pushing. That was the only way I could get it done," said McDuell, sitting in a wheelchair near the JetBlue counter. She was wearing a hospital gown she has had on all week, a pink housecoat donated by another patient and red slipper socks. She had no shoes.

The airport hospital is staffed by medical personnel brought in from across the country by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They say they have been lucky to get four hours of sleep a night, usually on a hard floor.

The crush of patients has sometimes forced staff to turn people away.

"We were just inundated with so many people at once," said Bren Luke, a registered nurse and emergency medical technician from Chattanooga, Tenn. "We've given them cots, we've given them stretchers, we've given them cardboard - anything to get them bedded down."

Luke went to Florida to help after Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne, two of the four to hit that state last year. She said all four of them together might begin to approximate what they're facing here.

"You've got a lot of shellshocked people here, and their bodies just give out," she said. "A body can only take so much."

Narrow escape

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