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Immediately after Katrina I traveled to Louisiana as an independent volunteer EMT. Through the LA Bureau of EMS I was paired with a trauma nurse (Lynn), and our first assignment was to triage patients at the New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport. We were there from 9/2 ? 9/4, the time in which all of New Orleans was being evacuated. We were later assigned to a makeshift hospital in Lafayette, but the airport was by far the most heartbreaking and memorable experience. We hear a great deal about what went wrong after Katrina, but little is said about the positive. The volunteers I worked with were by far the best team I?ve ever been a part of. We had few resources and worked long hours in the face of constant heartbreaking circumstances. But there were few complaints. Everybody worked together to make the best out of a bad situation. Here?s to all the volunteers and to the citizens of New Orleans. The memories will fade, but every one of you will live in my heart forever. Here?s a glimpse of what it was like: From the time we started and Lynn told me we would not stop for anything, even a person dying on the side of the road, the magnitude of what we were going into hit. This was compounded when she let me know she had a loaded .380 in the console because car-jackings were happening on the road down. (And I volunteered to come down here???) Within an hour we were talking our way through police roadblocks. At one tense point we were confronted at gunpoint by a very belligerent (and obviously scared) officer when we asked how we could get to the airport when he directed us off our route. Two hours later we finally arrived. At that time the airport was a clearing house for New Orleans. There was a constant stream of buses from the Superdome and the Convention Center as they closed them down. All the people you saw on the news being airlifted off rooftops and saved by boat were funneled through the airport. Thousands of people passed through in the days we were there. Entering the airport we ascended a flight of steps, stepping in to a sea of downtrodden, weary looking people. They looked at us with a sense of longing, seeming to beg us with their eyes to help end the nightmare they were living. People of all ages were standing, sitting, and even laying in a massive crowd which appeared to come to a point at the opposite end of the terminal. Many were clinging to the only belongings they had left, suitcases and plastic bags with clothes, purses, teddy bears, favorite toys, Bibles, pictures, anything they could grab in the short time they had to flee. Garbage filled the ground. No matter where we stepped, we were standing on cardboard, cups, bottles, and food. Abandoned belongings were scattered about; suitcases, clothing, jackets, tattered blankets, dolls. As we worked our way through the crowd and into another concourse, we were greeted by a scene that will replay in my mind forever. There were three beige military tents in the middle of a large circular terminal. The floor was carpeted with people laying on battlefield cots, on the floor, in wheelchairs, or simply leaning on one another. Occasional rows of airport seating were filled with people and belongings. The sight confronting us was much like a battlefield in the throes of war. The smell of urine, feces, vomit, and death hung heavy in the air. I felt I must have accidentally stepped into Hell. My every instinct told me to turn and run. But I couldn?t. These people needed help. Over the next several hours we went from patient to patient, taking histories, blood pressures, and pulses; checking only their vitals to determine whether their condition warranted immediate medical attention. Many were nursing home patients who were not ambulatory, and in the absence of anybody to help them to the bathroom, many had urinated and defecated on themselves. People were calling to us constantly, desperate for some contact with anybody who could make them more comfortable. Each person had significant needs. Our ability to keep going depended on our ability to distance ourselves from what we were seeing and hearing. We heard story after story that broke our hearts. In one case an elderly patient I was caring for broke down and recounted her story of getting accidentally separated from her husband during the evacuation. She hadn?t seen him in two days. Despite wanting to give her a big hug and reassurance that all would be ok, I could only squeeze her hand, turn and leave. It felt heartless, but had I started to feel in any way, I couldn?t have gone on...there was too much heartbreak. The flow of patients was unending. People being evacuated by helicopter were dropped at the airport. Those that could walk to the terminal did. Those that were not ambulatory were loaded onto baggage carts like luggage and brought to the terminal. Bus after bus dropped more people at our front door. Unable to accommodate everybody, the crowd built out into the passenger loading zone. People were standing in 95 degree heat for hours. Dehydration overcame many. As we worked, the dull roar was occasionally shattered by loud shouts of "Medic! Medic!" from the main concourse. Federal agents and military personnel watching the crowd summoned medical help for those that passed out. We ran, pushed our way through the crowd, and carried people limp and lifeless to the red tent, despondent family members in tow. The minutes turned to hours. The hours turned to days. The time blurred together. Finally after working nearly 40 hours straight, I could take no more. Despite the ongoing needs of the patients, my adrenaline levels began to run low and fatigue was rendering me nearly useless. As I lay down in my cot I said a short prayer and finally drifted into a fitful couple hours of sleep. Waking after 5 hours, I made my way back upstairs ready to face the crowd again. I was amazed to find the terminal to be practically empty. At some point in the night, the crowds of people had been largely evacuated. Over the next few hours the situation changed very little. A slow trickle of patients picked up as air rescues resumed with daylight. A few hours later we were released to leave. I don?t think I?ll ever be able to fully process what we saw at the airport. Logically I can rationalize it as battlefield medicine. But giving it a title does not take away the pain and suffering we saw in those peoples? faces. It doesn?t take away the inhumanity of people laying in their own filth, waiting for one person to have just a little bit of time to tend to their needs. Each and every one of us who worked there is left with a closet full of ghosts. We?re haunted with feeling there was more we should have done for those patients. Logically we know each of us was giving 500%. But it still wasn?t enough. The saddest memory is that of our "expectant" patients. In many cases patients were too sick to transport. Unfortunately we were equipped to treat and send people, not hospitalize them. Faced with no viable options, these mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, people who had once laughed and cried, people who were loved deeply by others were carried away to a quiet area, away from the other patients. There they spent the last minutes and hours of their lives receiving only morphine to reduce their pain...waiting to die. The experience at the airport has changed me forever; not in the context of a huge conversion. Instead it has colored the way I view humanity. It?s impossible to describe in words. I marvel at the ability of people to cope with extremely inhuman situations. I truly view the people affected by the hurricane as heroes. My mind is still there. But for now I need to be with my family...and be grateful for life. Dwight Brown DwightB1809@msn.com