At first, it didn't seem as though it was going to be that serious. I was in the medical office building next to Memorial Medical Center when the hurricane hit at 4:30 in the morning. The whole building started shaking violently in the wind. The windows in the walkways that connect the medical office building to the hospital began popping out. Glass was flying everywhere.
We found one that was safe and crossed over to the eight-story main hospital. We had a total of 2,000 people there-260 patients, 500 employees and hundreds of family members who had come to the hospital to ride out the storm.
When it got light, we could see about a foot of water in the street and a lot of wind damage to the surrounding area, with many trees down. The power had gone out, but we were able to convert to our generators. We thought we'd survived the hurricane and things would get back to normal fairly quickly.
Then, the levees started breaking. Our hospital sits right at the bottom of the New Orleans "bowl." The water started rising rapidly, 10 or 12 feet, until our basement was completely flooded. It was terrifying to see it rise so quickly. We didn't know where it was going to stop. We were able to move our food and other supplies up to the higher floors so at least we were able to feed people. We also moved all of our patients up to the higher floors. As the water continued to rise, we were completely cut off.
On the first day, some guys-volunteers from southern Louisiana-showed up in airboats. There was no sign of any organized rescue effort, just these kind people who came from out of nowhere. We were able to get all of the ambulatory patients and some family members out with them.
That evening--Aug. 30--we were able to evacuate 18 babies from our neonatal intensive care unit aboard some Coast Guard helicopters that landed on our rooftop helipad. Over the next couple of days, we tried to evacuate as many of the other people as we could by boat to higher ground.
Conditions at the hospital deteriorated rapidly. There was no plumbing; the toilets were overflowing. The stench was overwhelming. None of us had been able to bathe for four or five days. The smell of sewage was nauseating and it was unbearably hot. We started breaking windows to give our patients some ventilation. At the end, we were reduced to one meal a day.
We had no power at all for the last two days. None of the elevators were working, so we had to carry patients up as many as eight floors to the helipad or down to the boats. By Aug. 31, we were down to 160 bed-ridden, very sick patients. Luckily, and because we had no way to communicate, our corporate office in Dallas had been in touch with government officials during this period, trying to arrange a full evacuation. For days they were told that evacuation was imminent, and then, finally, they were told that we were on our own. With no government help available, Tenet Healthcare Corp., our parent company, hired a fleet of private helicopters to evacuate our patients.
I will never forget the heroism and the dedication of our physicians, our employees and their families. We had a core group of about 40 physicians who were just incredible-treating patients around the clock, doing everything in their power to keep them alive.
Our nurses and many of their family members-including teenagers and young kids-stood for hour upon hour upon hour fanning our patients by hand and bathing them with bottled water to make them more comfortable. I don't know many of their names, but I remember all of their faces-sons, daughters, husbands and wives of our employees.
I saw teenage boys-young men-helping to carry patients up the stairwells to the helipad or down to the boats. Our maintenance and security guys were also amazing. They worked without sleep for days at a time. No one panicked. No one complained. Many of us were concerned about our homes and our family members outside the hospital but everyone stuck to the task at hand-caring for our patients and for each other. Despite the terrible conditions, I could see in our patients' eyes that they trusted us. They knew we were working as hard as we could for them.
There were about 30 of us left at the end. We spent the night on the rooftop waiting for the helicopters to return in the morning. There was a huge explosion in the city, with flames shooting 1,000 feet into the air. We could see looters in some of the buildings nearby. We could hear gunshots in other parts of the city.
When the helicopters landed, we all stood up and applauded. At that point, we realized that we had pulled this off-we had evacuated all of our patients and employees, and we had survived.