Thursday, August 30, 2007

Memories of Katrina

On the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I am being bombarded with reminders of that time. It was a scary, surreal, and distressing time in my life that I still remember like it was yesterday. So hard to be believe that already two years have passed since then.

When Katrina came through, Margaret was about 4 weeks old and had just started the apnea/bradycardia phase of her NICU stay.

The night before the storm hit, I set my alarm clock for something crazy like 4am and went to sleep worried about what was to come. New to a coastal state, I had no idea what to expect. David and I had planned to get up before the storm came through so that we could get to the NICU and be with Margaret. But there was no need for an alarm clock.

You could hear the thunder hours before the winds or rain started. I laid awake in bed and listened to the ominous sound. Finally, I got up, made a pot of coffee and David and I got ready to make the drive to the hospital. It was still well before daylight when we made the short drive but the winds were already picking up and there were limbs down. Our tiny car was whipped around but not so much that we needed to turn back. Still, my knuckles were white on the door handle.

The NICU was eerie so early in the morning. David and I were the only parents at the hand washing station. Inside it was business as usual except that every Neonatologist on staff was there. At the six o'clock shift change instead of the nurses leaving until their next tour of duty, they checked the available rooms for their sleeping assignment and hoped they liked their roommate.

I only left Margaret's isolette a few times that day. Once, I peeked out the hospital windows and saw the roof of some structure or other was in the courtyard and that power was out everywhere except our hospital. I had seen the flicker when the electricity went out and the NICU went to emergency power. The one time that the emergency power failed for a few terrifying seconds (Margaret was still on breathing support), the nurses were all pointing to babies and picking who would Kangaroo which babies. A nurse and I were preparing to pull Margaret out of her isolette when the power flickered back on.

David and I returned to our powerless house that same day during the early evening. Because we are a little inland, we had not prepared like we should have. We had plenty of candles (because I'm a girl) but our food choices were limited. The first few days of no power were not too bad. Because we were on the west side of the storm, the winds had pulled down some cool air from the north. We only heard bits and pieces about what was going on in New Orleans... most of our information came from the radio and nurses, many whose families had lost everything.

After the first few days, things started to get a little crazy. The airspace above our city was filled with those giant military helicopters. Night and day you could hear them like in a war movie. Suddenly the NICU census increased 100%. Every nurse they had was working and had been there days on end. I no longer could fit in the space next to Margaret's isolette because of all the babies. There were camera crews and news people all over the hospital and in the unit. In the halls were arriving babies from life flight helicopters that landed on top of the parking garage. Nurses crying and apologizing to parents that their babies didn't make it through the flight. There were so many babies that no one knew where the parents were. There were such tiny babies all alone.

As the days went by, I gradually began to see more Moms in the NICU. There were many tearful reunions. One of Margaret's neighbors' Daddy showed up. He was a fixture our remaining days in that pod. The nurses began to be able to get some sleep and things slowly calmed down to near normal, although still very crowded.

While things stabilized at the hospital, our city was in borderline chaos. At least that is how it felt to me. There were stories on the radio about shootings and rapes and armed robbery. Stories of gangs roaming the area where we live. The University was shut down because of rumors that there was so much violence. Most of these stories we know now were untrue. Although a few stores had opened a few days after the storm, the hours were greatly reduced, and they were guarded by the National Guard with very large guns. The shelves of these stores were cleaned out, anyway, most people went for the air conditioning and just to have something to do. People lined up at places to buy ice for hours before they opened. It was nearly impossible to buy any.

The churches began to fill up with NO residents. All of our neighbors were housing people they had never met before. I donated most of my maternity clothes to the shelter housing pregnant women next to the hospital. There were so many people living in their cars. You could see them in the parking lots of grocery stores, mostly. Everywhere, you could hear the hum of generators. Lines to fill up a gas tank rivaled those of the 70's gas crisis. Traffic was terrible. It took hours to go a few miles. Calling someone on a cell phone was futile. All circuits were busy for at least a month.

After nearly two weeks, we finally regained our electricity. I was able to see the images of NO that almost everyone else in the country had seen. I couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that such destruction had hit so close to my home. The images still haunt me. That entire time in my life still haunts me.

In early November, Margaret was released from the hospital and my entire world became centered around her care. And that is when the hurricane ended for me. However, our city still shows the effects of that time. Our state is far from recovered.

I hope all those babies made it home.


Jessica said...

Thank you for writing this Lisa. I heard a few stories from people I still know in NO (they all got out), but nothing that pulled at my heart like your story.

Mel said...

What a great post! I can only imagine what it must have been like there in the NICU... the emotions.

Oh, I do hope all the babies made it home!

23wktwins'mommy said...

Wow what a powerful experience, and you did an excellent job at describing it. I can't even imagine having to deal with the fear of a hurricane in conjunction with my baby being in the NICU. Unbelievable.

Lisa said...

I should have mentioned that the reason we didn't get much news from the radio is that the stations had been opened up to callers... people calling all day and all night to say who they were, where they evacuated to, and who they were looking for. It was so very, very sad.

Thank you for the comments. It was a hard thing to write this post.

carolyn said...

Wow! The NICU is traumatic enough and then to experience the hurricane nightmare on top of it. I remember holding Jack and crying for the parents who didn't know where their babies were flown off to, how awful... You must have felt so blessed to have been able to be with Margaret throughout.

The Duncans said...

Thank you for this post. It really made me understand the horror Katrina caused people. The NICU is a terrifing place w/o a hurricane, I cannot begin to imagine what you went through with Margaret. Thanks for sharing your story.

Jennifer said...

I wasn't surprised by how much of NO was still in a state of disrepair when I visited 3 weeks ago...
the French Quarter seemed to make it through ok but step outside of it and its not pretty. Most of NO I saw looked very depressed... with good reason :(

I hope everyone there gets the help they need, and soon. A friend of mine just came back from a mission trip down there - her group was helping rebuild homes. Some people were trying to rebuild their homes with just their bare hands, no tools, no help and no money. Its not fair...

Angela said...

I watched the news hour after hour and was really affected when I heard of the NICU babies being evacuated. I cannot imagine having to go through a disaster like Katrina AND have the NICU experience all at the same time.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa!

I'm sorry for the slow reply, but I saw your post on Alice's journal--Dr. K is amazing! We just had our follow-up and I mentioned that you saw her on Discovery and she was so nonchalant about it... no ego there, refreshing in the medical community.
I don't know if I ever saw pics of your beautiful Margaret on BBC. Of course, William is so handsome, too. Thanks for checking up on Alice! I was reading through some of your entries.. this one was so powerful... I can't believe what you went through! You have such a strong spirit!!
Take Care,
(nanaslug on BBC)