New Orleans Airport Becomes Triage Unit

A woman receives oxygen and care at a triage unit in the airport

A woman receives oxygen and care from a rescue worker at a makeshift triage unit inside the New Orleans International Airport, Sept. 4, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

The Louis Armstrong International Airport has been transformed into a triage unit, where thousands of patients are awaiting treatment and evacuation to hospitals around the country.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The only hospital open in New Orleans is on Concourse D at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Five days ago, that field hospital didn't exist. NPR's Joseph Shapiro tells the story of some of the doctors, nurses and others there.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

Yesterday, Dr. Hammet Bakawala stood at the door to the tarmac. For the first time in days, he had a moment to relax.

Dr. HAMMET BAKAWALA (Texas-4): And as you can hear, this helicopter's taking off in the back from the tarmac, and this is a completely different place than it has been for the last several days.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

SHAPIRO: Because yesterday, there were far fewer helicopters landing with evacuees. Bakawala's a doctor with a DMAT, a Disaster Medical Assistance Team. He's with Texas-4. State DMAT teams are part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the 35 doctors, nurses, paramedics and other medical workers of Texas-4 were eager to help.

Ms. NANCY NAGEL (Nurse): We never imagined.

SHAPIRO: Nancy Nagel is a nurse. She's small, with a commanding presence.

Ms. NAGEL: When it was first happening, I thought to myself, `I'm in a B movie. This is a B movie, you know, the helicopters flying overhead, the people screaming, "I'm dying," "Help me," "I need water."'

SHAPIRO: Texas-4 was one of the first DMATs to arrive at the airport. They set up big canvas tents and turned the shut-down concourse into a MASH unit. They were all set to practice medicine. But then came tens and tens of thousands of sick and frail evacuees.

Ms. NAGEL: There were so many patients coming in that I had to ask people to take patients off of stretchers and put them on the floor. We had to take wheelchairs away from people because the wheelchairs were taking up too much space, and we had to put them on the floor.

SHAPIRO: Members of Texas-4 kept on working--72 hours without sleeping. Finally, on Wednesday night, Nagel ordered everyone to stop and sleep. Her colleagues were angry. There was still too much to do. The next morning, the team gathered for a meeting. Nagel said there were more workers and supplies coming.

Ms. NAGEL: We can't treat these people. We don't have the resources. What we can do is get them out of here as quickly as we can. So we're doing the best we can with the resources we have, and those resources are growing exponentially. But I know how hard all of this is on everybody. And you guys have risen to the occasion. I'm very grateful.

SHAPIRO: But that day, there were even more evacuees. Bakawala was angry. On his watchband, he wore his silver wedding ring. He'd rub it with his finger to remind himself what he had to be thankful for. The young doctor looked over the runway and spoke above the roar of the helicopters.

Dr. BAKAWALA: Monday morning when I kissed my wife goodbye, I thought I would arrive at an area that would be set up to deliver medical care, and that is not what I am doing. I am bailing out the ocean with a spoon.

(Soundbite of helicopters)

SHAPIRO: That pace kept up Friday, Saturday. Then yesterday it stopped. Just a hundred people waiting for medical care inside the terminal, not thousands. Bakawala came to see things differently.

Dr. BAKAWALA: I realized that the impression I had of my role in this giant disaster was not of an emergency medicine doctor; it was of a human being to help move patients.

SHAPIRO: The dwindling number of evacuees at the airport may only mean that the problem's been exported, as evacuees were flown off to other places. Yesterday, members of Texas-4 learned they may get sent today to one of those other cities. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, New Orleans.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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