Gulf Coast Reflection, Sept. 16, 2005
Today was as marked a contrast from one day to another as I am likely to experience. As I write, we are deployed with the First United States Army, providing medical support to first responders and a few civilians that have chosen to remain in the city.
Yesterday, we were mobilized to the River Center shelter, one of the large evacuee locations in Baton Rouge. Most of the folks there were from New Orleans and newly homeless. The lines formed the minute we pulled up- a self regulating orderly process consisting of folks with varied problems ranging from those who had left home without their glasses to those with serious injuries.
There is an old saying that everything remains the same- and this was no exception. Dr. Moshfeghi and I had returned from the Emergency Operations Center where we were assigned to downtown New Orleans. We had a line of 20 people we had promised to see at the shelter (when we left at 5pm for an Emergency Operations Center meeting) who were told to return at 7pm for the evening clinic. Every technician and nurse will identify with the experience we had- the last patient of the day had a retinal detachment with possible fungal endophthalmitis. The gentleman was elderly and confused which only compounded the difficulty, but we eventually were able to pack up and catch dinner at 10 PM.
What was not routine about the day were the stories we heard while working the patients up for Dr. Moshfeghi. One gentleman spoke of how he climbed in the attic to escape the rapidly rising water. As it continued up, his son took a shotgun to blast a hole in the roof so that they could escape. Another older man had waded the flood waters only to be evacuated to Baton Rouge. On arrival he had been attacked by a gang of people who had left a large gaping gash on the bridge and side of his nose.
These and all the other stories were told with a sense of calm and resignation- no anger at failure to be rescued, no spoken sense of despair about their future- just a desire to return home.
Contrasting the chaos of the shelter, the pace of activity in downtown New Orleans around us is frenetic, yet controlled. Overhead, a steady stream of helicopters rotate off the Helicopter Aircraft Carrier Iwo Jima, located 200 yards to our south. As I took a break to look at the river, a Blackhawk put down 50 feet from me in an area I remember strolling during many AAO annual meetings over the years.
Directly behind the vision van is a sea of khaki uniforms, 82nd Airborne and others, gathered at a large mess tent complex. We were invited to join them for lunch, which was an outstanding meal of steak and shrimp. Greg Freelove, a technician and ex-Army medic, assured us that this was an unusual meal, served when the big brass are on scene.
As we were winding down after a quick dinner, a huge line of troops from the 82nd Airborne, Homeland Security personnel and sailors attached to the Iwo Jima formed up as they were rotating on and off duty. Some had been in their contact lenses too long; others were complaining of fecal contaminated dust swirling around, now that the mud is drying out.
Whereas yesterday was the homeless and faceless side of the tragedy, the people we see on CNN for a few seconds, today was the A-list of government officials committed to showing the troops their support. Senators Lieberman, Kennedy, Frist, Ritter, Landreu, Dodd and others all passed by to greet the troops and offer their support.
We are one of the few vehicle equipped with satellite internet access, which is one of the components of our state of the art telemedicine capabilities. One of the byproducts of this technology is internet access, which we have made available to some of the local EMS.
I think one of the highlights for all of us was to meet three star General Honore, who presented Carl-Edouard Denis, Ramon Diaz, Gregory Freelove, Andrew Moshfeghi and me with a medallion “For Excellence Presented by Commanding General First United States Army-First in Deed”. He’s a very straight talking guy who is committed to getting the situation rapidly under control.
I am struck by how well the team from Bascom Palmer has worked together throughout this, particularly when you see how bureaucratic the process is to get credentialed and actually seeing patients. Carl-Edouard has just been called out to translate for many patients and has been our documentary photographer, in addition to some tireless hours behind the wheel. Soon, we anticipate the arrival of our telemedicine system to uplink photos to Miami for second opinion evaluations. Ramon has been expertly refracting and dispensing glasses for those who have lost them in the flood. Gregory has handled a lot of intake and tonometry, as well as crowd control. Dr. Couvillion was on the ground using local knowledge and contacts to put us in position to help a lot of folks quickly with expedited Louisiana medical licenses. Dr. Moshfeghi tirelessly plowed through 50 patients a day, and is now in a car to see the extent of damage to the home of his wife’s parents.
Dr. Puliafito arrives on the 8 AM red-eye from the coast tomorrow morning, laden with new equipment, lasers and drugs to expand our role and presence. Despite hugely frustrating communication problems, he has been constantly in contact with us since our departure, arranging resources and offering encouragement with his “Ride to the sound of gunfire” management approach. We have sidestepped a lot of obstacles both before and along the way by just plain “showing up”, rather than waiting for, or asking for, permission.
And, we want to also thank all of you at Bascom Palmer that worked tirelessly to put this effort together, pulling supplies, picking up the slack created by a coworker who has deployed to New Orleans. We are very aware everyone at Bascom Palmer would have happily stepped up to join us here, and we are all honored to represent you.