Face to Face with Katrina Survivors: A First Reponders Tribute:
Dr. Lemuel Moyť
Two hours into my first shift at the Katrina clinic, I had my first young
mother as a patient. I may have made a difference for her. To be honest, I donít
think I did until the very end of our visit-Iím not really sure. However, if we had
been operating a regular clinic where you paid for what you received, then I
would be the one writing the check.
The nurse saw her first, carefully charting her vital signs, and writing a
brief note that the woman had a sore throat and swollen glands. Walking into the
room, I was surprised to see not one woman with her children, but only four
children of various ages. The youngest looked to be about three; the oldest was
a young teenager. While three of them were sitting on the low cot, to my left, the
oldest was on the bed to my right. This oldest child was the fifteen year old
mother, Donita Phillips.
The contrast between Ms. Phillips and the other three children astonished
me. Ms. Phillips was the detritus of life. Dust completely encased her soft, dark
face and scalp, and her full head of tangled hair hadnít been combed for days.
Small abrasions in various stages of healing covered her face, neck and arms,
and her feet were terribly contused and swollen.
Watching this short, broken young girl, the thought that this was the most
tired person Iíd ever met! shocked me like a physical blow. The fatigue didnít just
pull at her red-rimmed eyes - it drew her cheeks, mouth, and jaws downward, as
if the skin was being pulled off her face. Covered by weariness, the condition
consumed her, hollowing her out. I couldnít begin to guess how long this young
woman had gone without sleep -she looked as though sheíd never slept.
Yet, the three younger children appeared fine. Between two and four
years old, all were clean, hair combed and in place, each dressed in a new set of
clean clothes. And they were awake and refreshed --- the full force of life
coursing through them. They reminded me of sisters sitting in church. They
wanted to talk but, knowing that they shouldnít, followed their training and not
their impulses. The contrast between these spotless, attentive children on the
one hand, and Ms. Phillips on the other hand was astonishing. It was like every
drop of the essence of life had been painfully wrung out of Ms. Phillips and
poured, renewed and refreshed, into each of her children.
Ms. Phillips had opened one eye as I approached her. She was not
attentive to my introduction, to my questions, or, for that matter to my exam.
Finally, I just put the chart down, sat with her so our faces were level, and asked
"How can I help you, Ms. Phillips." The thought Antibiotics and twenty-four hours
of sleep would be the best for this desperately tired woman, forced its way
through my stunned mind.
I was way off.
She looked at me, and said, simply "Iíve lost my baby." Her head was up
now, new tears following the dirty tracks of those that had flowed down her face
Instantly agitated, I asked, "You mean here, or in New Orleans?"
"Sheís gone!" Ms. Phillips replied, in as agitated a voice as her cloak of
fatigue would allow. "I think she got pulled away!"
Emergency! my mind shouted at me. If the child was missing at the
Reliant Arena, I would need help, and help fast. A search must commence at
once! "I would like to try to help you," I stated, failing to keep the alarm out of my
voice. "Please, can you tell me about this?"
Her head aching with the lack of sleep, Ms. Phillips began to speak
in soft, slurred, but understandable words. Her children and I listened alertly, her
phrases swaying heavily in a deep, southern accent.
"The five of us were in our home. When the water started to run along the
streets, I knew we had to get out of there. I never moved as fast as I did those
few minutes, getting my four girls ready. I got us over to Momís house, which was
on higher ground."
"Go on, please, Ms. Phillips," I urged. "I need to know about your missing
"But I left so fast, I forgot to pick up some things we needed. So, I went
back to get them. When I came outside, the water was already up to my waist."
Ms. Phillips was less than five feet tall.
She then made the one statement that began for me one of the most
horrifying conversations Iíll ever have.
"You know," she continued, allowing her eyes to meet mine for the first
time," the worst thing about wading through that water was a manhole cover."
"Manhole cover?" I repeated, completely confused. "What do you mean?"
What are you doing listening to this? my mind raged. You have to find out where
that child was lost!
"Many times," she said, in a dry monotone, "the rush of all of that water
pushed the manhole covers off, making a hole in the street."
"YesÖ" I said, still not clued in.
"It makes a hole that you can get caught in as you try to walk through the
"A hole you couldnít see, right?" I asked, my concern for the missing baby
pushed aside by a new, thick revulsion to what I feared was coming.
"Yeah. You would be walking along, and suddenly, you would fall down
into one of those holes. If you fell all the way down you could drown. I think some
people died that way. Most times you would have a big swallow of that water as
you got pulled under. Parents were all afraid of them. Thatís why we didnít want
our children walking in the water if you couldnít see the bottom. If your baby fell
into one of those holes, she would beÖbe gone. OH!!" she cried out suddenly.
My stomach turned over and my mind reeled with this new horror.
Anybody walking through this water in the streets was in danger of serious
disease, even death from the fetid water. Full of dirt, sewage, dead bodies and
petroleum waste, this mixture was toxic to the skin. We were already seeing thick
running sores full of blood and pus that required immediate antibiotic therapy.
The effect of a mouthful of this poison was particularly ghastly. And, when you
fell into one, you didnít just get a mouthful. You got a stomach-full. And thatís if
you were lucky. An unlucky little girl would actually breathe the fluid in. Her lungs,
already working overtime for air, would receive a ghastly mix of liquid waste and
gasoline that could hardly be considered water anymore.
"NO. NO!" she cried.
And, worse than that, a young child, only three feet high would fall right
through the open manhole. Right to the bottom. She would disappear suddenly,
falling rapidly through tens of feet. Instantly, the toxic slush would slide into her,
filling her mouth and nose and eyes with the poison. Frightened, she would
inhale it into her lungs, where it would kill her in two to three minutes. In the dark,
"MY BABYíS GONE!"
Over a period of twenty-five years, I had seen some ghastly injuries. Dog
bites, machine accidents, traumatic amputations, even a decapitation. Yet, until
this moment in my career, I never wanted to bolt from a patientís room as I did
right now. I didnít think I could bear what I feared I would hear. But, there was no
way I could leave her alone, as she explained to me what happened to her child...