Health Care

Mother, Disabled Son Safe After Storm Saga

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Carmen Vidaurre and her 24-year-old son, who has muscular dystrophy, made a perilous escape from New Orleans. Now they're with family in New Jersey. Their story emphasizes the difficulty of moving people with special needs.


Three weeks ago in the first days following Hurricane Katrina, we introduced you to a woman, Carmen Vidaurre. She and her son were stranded at a triage center set up at the New Orleans airport. The son has muscular dystrophy. They had been waiting for days to be evacuated after Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. CARMEN VIDAURRE: The people that are, you know, incapable of doing for themselves, you know, they should be treated better.

HANSEN: As she spoke, Vidaurre stood next to her son, Joseph, who was elevated in his wheelchair. She could see he was getting sicker and sicker. He needed to be evacuated to a hospital, but private and military airplanes kept leaving without them. One doctor came over to her in the airport terminal to say her son's wheelchair was too heavy.

Unidentified Doctor: We're taking 60 people back with us to get treatment and medicines and that kind of thing. The problem is we're on a passenger plane, and I can't use--I can't put people that are wheelchair bound.

HANSEN: Carmen Vidaurre refused to leave without that wheelchair. Her son needed it to get around, and, more, its special cushions protected his delicate body, and without it, he was in danger of developing painful bed sores, which are a cause of death for many people with his disability. NPR's Joseph Shapiro picks up the story.


Carmen Vidaurre remembers the scene at the crowded New Orleans airport. She was getting more and more worried about her son, Joseph.

Ms. VIDAURRE: He was getting pale, kind of weak, you know. I noticed something different about him. You know? But his face, you know, I could tell that he was getting sick.

SHAPIRO: It had been five days since the storm waters came rushing under the door of their first-floor apartment and rose up above the wheels of her son's wheelchair, shutting down the motor on the heavy machine. That wheelchair cost about $20,000 and took three months to get from Louisiana Medicaid. They wound up at the airport, where elderly and disabled people had been evacuated from hospitals and nursing homes. Many were left to lie on the floor in stretchers. Doctors and nurses were overwhelmed. Joseph had just celebrated his 24th birthday. He's got dark, tousled hair and a black mustache. Muscular dystrophy left his chest flat and narrow, like a piece of plywood. He weighs less than 80 pounds, and he's always one health crisis away from facing death.

Ms. ANNA GERATANNA(ph): That's all I kept thinking--is they're going to drown.

SHAPIRO: Anna Geratanna is Carmen Vidaurre's daughter and Joseph's big sister. She had no idea where they were.

Ms. GERATANNA: They're going to drown because I know my mom, and she's not going to leave my brother. And she can't physically lift him.

SHAPIRO: Back home in New Jersey, she'd spent days on Internet search sites and on the phone. Then her mother called from a hospital in Baton Rouge. She and Joseph had been evacuated, finally, by ambulance. Joseph was sick and dehydrated. He was hooked up to an IV. But too many other people needed his hospital bed, and Joseph and his mother would have to leave again. Geratanna got on the phone.

Ms. GERATANNA: I'm fighting with the hospital because they discharged him, so I lost it. By this time I'm yelling at the nurses to--the people on the night staff, the doctors--I just--I was like, `You don't understand. You can't kick her out. I haven't found her for five days. This is the first time I've actually spoken to her and know that she's safe and sound and she has a bed to sleep in.' I told them if they lost my mother, they were going to be fully responsible for both of them. I was--I mean, at this point, I was like, `You do not lose them.' I was like, `You lose them, I will personally come down there.' I was like, `I will put lawyers on you so quickly. You do not lose them.'

SHAPIRO: Geratanna and her husband, Tony, took the first flight out. When they reached Baton Rouge, they searched the shelters until Geratanna found her brother. But she didn't see her mother until she looked across the large room and saw her mother with an elderly woman who was confused and alone. She was helping the woman use the pay phone to call her family.

Ms. GERATANNA: That's my mom. She's just amazing. I get there and I'm thinking, you know, she's going to be devastated. Everything's gone. She basically doesn't have anything. And here she is, she's just taking care of people.

Ms. VIDAURRE: You really have to give help, you know, to people that really need it. You know?

SHAPIRO: They tell the story from the kitchen of the daughter's home. It's where Joseph and Carmen are living, at least for now. Anna and her husband drove Joseph and Carmen back from Louisiana 23 hours to New Jersey. Joseph was sick and exhausted.

Mr. CURT DECKER (National Disability Rights Network): Well, I'm impressed with the story because it talks about how a mother has probably fought all her life for services for her child with a disability.

SHAPIRO: Curt Decker runs the National Disability Rights Network.

Mr. DECKER: So it would not be surprising that in this crisis she was not going to abandon him and was certainly not going to let him go without an essential piece of assisted technology that has been custom-made for him and that really makes his life the best quality it can be based on his disability.

SHAPIRO: Attorneys with Decker's group have gone into shelters and found evacuees who were forced to give up wheelchairs. Many are now in poor health or stuck on shelter floors.

Mr. DECKER: I think we discovered that there were really three vectors involved here: race, poverty and disability. And often the people that were most vulnerable, least able to leave and were the last to be rescued turned out to be people who had significant disabilities. The first people to die were people who had medical conditions and disabilities that required some kind of technology or medication that was not available to them.

(Soundbite of crumpling noise)

SHAPIRO: Back in New Jersey, the family gathers in the kitchen for dinner. It's take-out.

Ms. GERATANNA: You're hungry, aren't you, J.J.? I know what you're going to have.

Ms. VIDAURRE: Got Chinese rice, chicken fried rice, chicken and egg roll.

SHAPIRO: A social worker found a vendor who fixed Joseph's wheelchair for free.

Ms. VIDAURRE: You feel better now, your tummy? (Laughs) Feels better.

SHAPIRO: New Jersey provided Medicaid services. An aide comes each morning to help lift Joseph out of bed, get him bathed and dressed two hours, five days a week. In Louisiana, Medicaid paid for aides to come 13 hours a day, seven days a week. But Carmen Vidaurre is happy with the help she's getting. She and Joseph plan to stay in New Jersey. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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