Doctor describes ordeal at the front

KINGMAN ­ Television pictures of the destruction in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are heart wrenching but perhaps only touch the surface of the horror.

Reporters covering the story talk to survivors, rescue workers and government officials about the tragedy daily. But they spend just minutes in most cases with each person at any given location gathering information and rushing to get the story on the air before moving on to the next story.

What is it really like at the front? I got a better idea Wednesday upon receiving an e-mail from my nephew. He is a Navy officer working in the operations and policy section of the Pentagon.

He forwarded me an e-mail he received from someone he knows who had passed it on from someone else in a sort of "friend of a friend of a friend" scenario.

Dr. Gregory Henderson is the sender of the original message. He's a physician in New Orleans and part of a team of seven doctors, physician assistants and pharmacists working to ease the suffering in a city largely underwater.

Henderson put together his message on "The situation in New Orleans" at 2 p.m. Tuesday. But due to limited Internet access, it was not transmitted until seven hours later.

"I am now a temporary resident of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New Orleans," Henderson said.

"I figured if it was my time to go, I wanted to go in a place with a good wine list."

There would be no more levity in the remainder of the message.

The first floor of all downtown buildings is underwater, he said.

Charity Hospital and Tulane are limited in their ability to care for patients because of water. Ochsner is the only hospital that remains fully functional. However, they too are on generator and losing food and (drinking) water fast.

"Bodies are still being recovered floating in the floods," Henderson said. "We are worried about a cholera epidemic."

Henderson describes the many looters as poor and desperate people with no housing, medical care, food or water and are trying to care for themselves and their families. Many are armed and gunshots are heard frequently.

Canal Street is living up to its name and is occupied by looters with a low threshold for firing their weapons.

The group of medical professionals he is part of commandeered the French Quarter Bar and converted it into a makeshift clinic, Henderson said. He expects it to be the "major medical facility" in the central business district and French Quarter for the foreseeable future.

"Our biggest adventure (Tuesday) was raiding Walgreens on Canal Street under police escort," Henderson said. "The pharmacy was dark and full of water.

"We basically scooped the entire drug sets into garbage bags and removed them. The looters had to be held back at gunpoint."

The medical team expects to deal with a wide scope of medical problems, medications and acute injuries.

"Where is the National Guard? We hear jet fighters and helicopters, but there is no real armed presence and hence rampant looting," he said.

The Red Cross and Salvation Army had not yet arrived on the scene, he said.

In a sort of cliché way, the entire experience is edifying, Henderson said.

"It has been challenging to me to learn how to be a primary care physician," he said. "We are under martial law, so return to our homes is impossible.

"I don't know how long it will be, and this is my greatest fear. Despite it all, this is a soul edifying experience.

"The greatest pain is to think about the loss. And how long the rebuild will take. And the horror of so many dead people."

Henderson closed by asking anyone who can help to send suture packs, sterile gloves and stethoscopes as the Ritz is turned into a M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital).

Undoubtedly, the Red Cross and Salvation Army will do all they can in New Orleans. But vehicular traffic will not be moving in or out of the city anytime soon, so finding a means to bring in needed supplies remains a major problem.

It will take weeks to restore electricity to everyone. And how that effort can begin before flood waters drain or are pumped out is open to question.

Water safe for consumption and working sewage systems are other necessities we take for granted daily that can't be found today in New Orleans.