Doctors who tended victims of Hurricane Katrina have detailed in a collection of essays the harrowing ordeal of being stuck inside crippled hospitals and shelters after the storm ravaged New Orleans.
The essays in today's New England Journal of Medicine describe ducking sniper fire, singing gospel songs, scavenging drugs and diapers from a flooded pharmacy besieged by looters, and holding a talent show by flashlight.
Some wrote of the chaos of having too much of some things -- doctors and nurses whose specialties weren't needed -- and too little of others, like batteries and a game plan to provide care. A thoracic surgeon was put to work running a copy machine at a Red Cross field office.
Gregory Henderson, M.D., who normally studies tissue samples at Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, became the family doctor for 15,000 sun-baked, dehydrated people outside the convention center.
"About every hour, I said a prayer that I would stumble upon another medical professional in the crowd," but none arrived for three days, he said in an interview.
In the journal, Henderson described an obese diabetic woman in a wheelchair who stopped him and said she thought something was wrong with her legs. When Henderson lifted her housecoat, he saw horrific skin ulcers and gangrenous toes -- problems he could not fix.
"That's OK, honey," he quoted her as telling him. "I'm old. There are some sick babies here. You go worry about them."
At Charity Hospital, where doctors and nurses were stranded for nearly a week without power or running water, an infectious-disease ward held a talent show to boost morale. AIDS patients and tuberculosis sufferers in breathing masks were among those who attended.
Read the current issue of NEJM at nejm.org.