In Case of Emergency...

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ANTHONY SUAU FOR TIME

Emergency-room doctors and nurses thrive on pressure. But the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the situation inside Charity Hospital was getting dire. Five feet of water ringed the nearly 70-year-old building. The power was gone and the backup generators had flooded. There was no running water. It was dark and insufferably hot. With the first-floor emergency room taking on water, Dr. Peter DeBlieux, 45, worked in the predawn darkness to set up a refuge in a second-floor auditorium for about 50 critically ill patients. Then the doctor joined emergency-room staff in carrying the sick up the stairs. Everyone was game to pitch in. "It's part of what we do," says DeBlieux, who directs development of young residents and faculty. "Emergency medical people crave this kind of thing, in a sick way."

Three days after the storm, however, with more than 800 people—including 250 patients—still stranded in the hospital and hope of rescue fading, morale plummeted. Toilets were overflowing with waste, people were relieving themselves in the stairwells and the stench was overwhelming. Residents were siphoning diesel fuel from a lone ambulance to run the seven portable generators keeping patients alive. "At 72 hours, it was pretty apparent that no one was going to come rescue us," says DeBlieux. He and the staff watched in increasing desperation as National Guard trucks, sent out on other missions, passed them by. Finally agents from Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and their counterparts from Texas and Arkansas, started showing up in small boats. At the hospital dock, DeBlieux directed the evacuation all day—patients on stretchers from the emergency room as well as infectious cases, exhausted nurses and residents, staff members and family. Four days after Katrina struck, the hospital was finally evacuated.

Today DeBlieux and a contingent from Charity Hospital run a makeshift health care facility out of a convention hall—one of only three emergency rooms in all of New Orleans. The hospital itself—which cared for the city's poor—remains closed and may never be rebuilt. DeBlieux is so heartsick about the unraveling of emergency health care in the city that he took his concerns to a doctors' rally on Capitol Hill in Washington only weeks after Katrina. Since then, the lack of federal and state response, he says, has been "alarming and disheartening."