Tiny signs of survival amid storm's deaths

Katrina's Wake

September 08, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BATON ROUGE, La. - Their translucent eyelids are rarely open, but these babies have already seen much of the world. They've flown in military choppers and forded rivers of sewage. Tiny New Orleans natives, they survived Katrina's wrath in their first days of life, or, like Skylar Burke, in the process of being born.

His mother's contractions were less than two minutes apart Aug. 29 when the National Guard moved her, barefoot and wearing only a T-shirt, from her flooding New Orleans apartment to the Superdome.

From there she was airlifted to the Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, where on Saturday Skylar - the son of a Bourbon Street musician - was born, several weeks premature.

He's still in the intensive care neonatal unit here but is healthy enough to down bottles of breast milk.

"He's a strong baby," said his mother, Bunne, 24.

The same goes for the hundreds of hurricane babies in Baton Rouge and its suburbs.

Their fists are the size of brussels sprouts, but they are born fighters, and their survival inspires a Louisiana city overwhelmed by accounts of death from the south.

Baton Rouge - the adult population of which has doubled in recent days - is in the midst of a baby boom. Over the past week and a half more than 60 evacuees have given birth at the Woman's Hospital. Local facilities have been host to 121 premature babies who were recovered from five New Orleans medical centers. And as more evacuees find permanent homes here, the newborns will likely keep coming: Woman's Hospital doctors, who deliver 600 to 700 children a month, expect to handle thousands of extra births this year.

The neonatal wards have been hectic: More quilts, more blankets, more professional "cuddlers" - volunteers who come in to cradle the babies - are needed than ever before, and the staff has been working around the clock.

Still, in the midst of disaster, the ward feels peaceful, soothed by the rhythm of lullabies and babies' breath.

No place could be more removed from the chaos on the television screen.

"It's been more than a little surreal," said Dr. Steven Spedale, the head of neonatal care at the Woman's Hospital.

But he's been glad to focus his energies on the health of the dozens of hurricane babies remaining on the ward, all of whom - even a 12-hour-old 24-week preemie who arrived at the hospital last week - are faring well. One of the evacuee babies is named Katrina.

Spedale played a central role in saving New Orleans' babies, but Aug. 29 as Katrina thundered ashore, he wasn't particularly worried. New Orleans is home to three of the six best neonatal facilities in the state, and he was sure the city could handle any complications arising from the storm. Besides, he said, babies seem to like being born into natural disasters.

Mothers under any kind of stress frequently start labor early, and - though no one knows precisely why - the drop of barometric pressure that comes with storm systems facilitates contractions.

But then, on Tuesday, the levees broke, and hospitals soon lost power. At least one woman in labor swam for her life. Newborn babies in hospitals had nowhere to go.

Authorized by the federal Office of Emergency Preparedness, Spedale opened the doors of his hospital to the displaced preemies, who arrived over the next few days by the ambulance load, and in choppers that landed on the hospital's roof.

"A helicopter would arrive, and babies would be piling out of it," he said. "They got here every possible way except by boat."

Some of the babies arrived in the arms of their mothers, who squatted on helicopter floors.

Others, though, came alone, case histories clipped to their Isolettes, clear plastic incubators that are used to keep underweight babies warm and that during the hurricane doubled as carrying cases.

Hospital social worker Susan Eaton spent much of the past week trying to locate the parents of these children, making calls to emergency contacts listed on the babies' medical sheets. Parents also sought out their children.

One mother and two fathers who knew one another from a New Orleans nursery ward walked out of the city together, and then hitched a ride to Baton Rouge. Five mothers caught a ride on a barge. All said they feared a prolonged separation from their children.

Of the 87 premature babies originally housed at the hospital, about 50 have left with their parents, relocating to area shelters but also to refuges in other states, Eaton said. One baby is slated to fly home to Holland.

Some of the 30-odd premature babies remaining on the Woman's Hospital ward have not been reunited with their parents, but the mothers - who have wound up in shelters from Toledo to Salt Lake City - have been contacted.

In all cases, that is, except one.

The baby, whose name the hospital wouldn't release, is about three months old, which makes him one of the older children in the intensive care ward. He has a severe pulmonary ailment and huge brown eyes. All attempts to reach his mother have been unsuccessful, although the hospital has contacted her sister, Donna Smith, a New Orleans resident who took shelter from Katrina in Galveston, Texas.

The mother is Talissa Snell, 25, of the Seventh Ward. Snell had a baby who died last year and was sick with worry over her new son, who lay in a tiny New Orleans hospital bed as the hurricane approached. That's why she refused to leave the city when the rest of her family evacuated.

"She was riding out the storm for that baby," Smith said.

Smith holds out hope that the boy's mother is alive.

"I know that she stayed for him and that she would make it through anything for him."

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