Hurricane Katrina’s angels of mercy

Volunteer nurses are filling the gaps left by an uncaring, incompetent government following the USA`s worst natural disaster.

With their homes smashed to rubble and their lives reduced to a struggle for survival, most of America’s hurricane victims had received no government help more than a month after Katrina struck.

Hundreds of thousands remained homeless, hungry and in need of  medical attention.

Many are alive thanks only to the efforts of volunteers including nurses from across the USA. Nurses reported that many survivors were too stunned to even realise that they needed care.

Federal government and Red Cross relief efforts were described as ‘a disorganised, embarrassing mess’ by S.O.S. (Saving Our Selves) Katrina, a coalition of community organisations arranging freelance efforts to fill the gaps in emergency relief.

Unpaid nurses, doctors, psycho-logists, technicians, paramedics and social workers have joined forces to create mobile medical units.

They provide first aid, prescription medication, diabetic testing equipment, insulin and tetanus shots for people left homeless.

Volunteer nurses are also staffing hospitals and clinics along the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Hundreds of nurses have come from the California Nurses Association (CNA) and its national arm, the National Nurses Organizing Committee. The CNA provides administrative and logistic support and is requesting donations to help cover the US$1,500 in travel and other expenses for each nurse.

‘Our nurses are giving care to many people who have gone without care for much of their lives,’ said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of CNA. ‘In a civilised society, not caring for our own is a disgrace and an embarrassment for us to the rest of the world.

‘These heroic RNs are not just on the scene, they are saving lives, healing patients, connecting families, uplifting the spirit of the community and the local staff who are worn down after too many nights and days of unimaginable conditions.’

As Louisiana’s biggest public hospital, the Earl K Long Medical Centre routinely accepted poor patients turned away by other institutions. But after Katrina struck, the hospital, critically short of staff, began shutting its doors to desperate evacuees.

Then within four days of the disaster came the first wave of 30 volunteer nurses from the California union. The hospital was immediately able to double its patient load.

‘They are our California angels,’ said A. J. Barbier, director of the hospital’s nursing staff. ‘They received a round of applause when they showed up.’

At public hospitals like Earl K Long the volunteers are caring for victims of the nation’s worst natural disaster from society’s lowest social rung. Many patients are elderly people with chronic heart and respiratory problems and diabetes. They have been pulled off rooftops, loaded onto boats or helicopters, then forced to stay in one or more shelters before finally being taken to hospital.

Stories from the disaster zone …

  • Volunteer RN Christie Delemos, deployed to the Houston Astrodome:

‘Many of the evacuees did not have good access to care prior to the hurricane. We’ve seen untreated diabetes here that was an issue before people even arrived. Many of the people here have never seen a doctor, have never had an eye exam. This event really proves that we need a national health care plan.’

  • Volunteer RN Janelle McClung, deployed to Pascagoula Mississippi:

‘One day I went to the small town of Pass Christian, Mississippi. We drove up and down and anywhere we saw people we asked what they needed. We found one man whose mother had died and she was still in what was left of the house. He didn’t know what to do, so we helped him get assistance.’

  • Volunteer Joelle Marek Treanor, labour-and-delivery nurse:

A lonely woman who’d lost her home, car and clothing to Hurricane Katrina went limp in Joelle’s arms. ‘I hugged her really tight,’ Joelle recalled. ‘She started sobbing. She was whispering “Thank you.” She told me it was her first hug. She needed it so badly.’

  • Volunteer Sharon Hill, RN, hears a story of neighbourly love and trauma:

‘He was a 37-year-old construction worker. He lived down near the levy and had the only two-storey house in the neighborhood and he had a boat. ‘When the water started to rise, he went around collecting people from the neighborhood and brought them to his house, and all of them were on the second floor and on the roof. While he was going through the water, he bumped into floating bodies, but said he just pushed them out of the way. He told me, “Sometimes I wanted to turn them over, to see who they were, but I couldn’t”. ’Sharon said that part of her job is just listening to people who are deeply traumatised, hearing their stories and attempting to unders-tand while comforting them.