August 29th, 2008
08:15 PM ET

Caring after Katrina: a stethoscope, my hands, and my words

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Editor's Note: Dr. Gregory Henderson was in New Orleans 3 years ago today to start a new job. When the storm his, Dr. Henderson immediately went out to help the people left in the city. AC360 met Dr. Henderson at the New Orleans Convention Center, as one of the only doctors that stayed to help. He shares his experiences here:

Dr. Gregory Henderson, MD, PhD

Saturday, August 27, 2005
Preparing for the storm

The ship struck the iceberg on Saturday morning. My wife and I blearily awoke and flipped on the TV to see the first news that the massive Hurricane Katrina had quickly matured from a name on the map to a full blown catastrophe and she was coming right for us. I had one of my intrusive thoughts that if, for any reason, my family and I had to ride this storm out, the Ritz-Carlton building, being an old, large, predominately concrete structure on Canal Street would be as safe as any. I made a reservation at the hotel for the next day.

We listened to the radio reports for about half an hour before we decided that we needed to get everyone out quickly. I told them that I needed to stay behind to, at the very least, take some protective measures for the home, and I knew that I had a relatively safe place to check in, ride out the storm, and then join the medical team that I figured would be in place if it turned out to be a bad storm.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005
At the Ritz-Carlton

There was an overhead announcement that anyone who needed medical care should report to the French Quarter bar. I supposed this meant that there were other doctors in the hotel ready to help out, so I went down to let them know that, even though I was a pathologist, I was willing to help in any way. I was extremely happy to discover that there had been an HIV conference at the hotel, and, as such, there were several infectious disease specialists present, a family practitioner, a pharmacist, a PA, and an Ob/Gyn.

The team had already been organizing a list of possible drugs and supplies that we would need. The problem was, that I had already looked outside and talked to the police and realized that looting had begun, and many people were armed. I knew we were not going to have the chance to selectively look through the pharmacy and get what we thought we needed. We needed to get in there quickly, get as much as we could, and get out quickly.

The police agreed. So with Ritz-Carlton security at the watch, the young pharmacist, the family practice doc, the police and I waded across Canal Street in thigh deep water to the Walgreen's.

With their weapons drawn, Officers Jacob and Redmann and a few others kept the looters out. As fast as we could we started grabbing things off the shelves and filling the bags, trying to keep the bags high and dry. All the while we were yelling to the police in the store what other non-medical items, diapers, Depends, Ensure, bandages to get. Several police kept saying “hurry, hurry; we don’t have much more time.” I was the last one leaving. Officer Jacob was still guarding the door, and asked me did I get everything I needed. I said there’s a lot more back there we could probably use, but they said we don’t have time. He said – “you got time – go get what you need”.

It was then that the first of many epiphanies hit me. I turned and looked at the mob in front of the store and caught the eye of one black guy, about my age, and he said to me – “you’re just going back in there to take everything and leave nothing for us.” In that moment, these “looters” and I became one. I realized that they, the ones without privilege and letters of various degrees dangling off the back of their names had to wait their turn to gather the crumbs that I was leaving, while a brave cop held them all off at gunpoint. They weren’t there for any plasma screen TV’s and they sure weren’t there for the wet Hallmark cards. They were there for supplies to take care of themselves and their families. We were all looters, and in that moment I became happy to be one.

I looked at him and told him I am a doctor, and I just need to get a few more medicines to take care of some sick people. After that, you can have everything else. Maybe it was just my imagination, but at that the crowd seemed to relax. I think Jacob was even able to lower his weapon.

Thursday, September 1, 2005
From the Sheraton "clinic" to pick up supplies

I ran another morning clinic for the police officers coming off of evening duty, this time dealing with more superficial minor lacerations, and what seemed to be increasingly common rashes in those exposed to the water. Some of the rashes became so severe that some of the cops had to walk around in their underwear because it was so painful. It appeared to be some severe contact dermatitis from exposure to toxins in the water. Most of them continued to tell the same tales of what was happening at the Convention Center. I knew it was only a matter of time before I was going to have to stitch a wound or perhaps deal with some major trauma. As it was now September 1, and it was my formal first day as a staff member of Ochsner Clinic Foundation, I called Dr. Joe Guarisco, the chairman of the Emergency Department at Ochsner and told him about my predicament. He told me if I could get to Ochsner he would set me up with what I needed. Captain Bryson drove me to Ochsner.

At Ochsner, Dr. Guarisco had a pack ready with scrubs, sterile suture kits and other miscellaneous items he thought I would need. He and all the staff were saturated with taking care of the patients showing up at Ochsner and already in the hospital, so they could spare no help.

As Bryson and I headed back to Sheraton, I turned and looked down a cross street towards the Convention Center, and for the first time saw the mass of people. I told him we needed to go down that way and check them out and take that road back to the Sheraton.

As we drove by, there is no image that I have ever witnessed in the United States that I had ever seen to which I could compare it. We had gone from First World to Third World overnight. Thousands upon thousands of people were collected on the boulevard in front of the convention center. There were the infants, adults, elderly, and lines of the wheelchair bound. There were many very old and very young lying on sheets and blankets on the median. There were screaming men, women and children and dazed, quiet and confused men, women and children. Most were African-American, but many were white. It was as if the entire city had vomited up its citizens and the convention center was the vomit trough. People saw me dressed in the green scrubs from Ochsner and started banging on the windows saying, “Help us doc” – many were in tears. I wanted to get out of the vehicle and help these people, but Bryson was minimally armed. He wouldn’t let me get out, but promised that as soon as we got back to the Sheraton he would send me back with enough armed police escort to start trying to do something for these people.

He kept his promise, and he sent me out with Officer Mark Mornay – one of the finest and bravest men I have ever had the pleasure to know in my life.

At the Convention Center

When Mornay took me back to the Convention Center and saw what I saw – he too took it as his personal mission to help these people in any and every way he could. We found quickly that a physician in scrubs with a stethoscope with a kind, but forceful, police officer were immediately welcomed into the crowd. The problem was how to deal with all the people – estimates are that by then there were 15,000 people there – I later found out that the number was closer to 30,000.

As soon as I would briefly hear one person’s crisis, I was grabbed for another – there was simply no way to logically triage it all. I ended up spending most of the afternoon with Mornay just making my way through the crowd dealing with one person after another. Lots of dehydrated infants and mothers – all I could do was get them water bottles, tell them to get out of the sun (although that was little remedy as everywhere you went it was 100 degrees) and keep drinking. Hundreds of elderly confined to wheelchairs – also dehydrated, many with large plastic bags of empty medication bottles asking for refills (of which I had none). Her nephew led me to one elderly, diabetic wheelchair-bound woman, who told me that she thought she had something wrong with her legs. I lifted her long housecoat to reveal multiple bilateral deep epidermal ulcerations on her tibia and feet, and a few gangrenous toes. I told her that I couldn’t do anything for her right now but I would get help as fast as I could. She said, “That’s ok honey, I’m old, they don’t hurt that bad, and there are some sick babies here – you go worry about them.”

And worry I did. I saw three children in active seizures, two of whom had a known seizure disorder and had run out of medication. There wasn’t much I could do for them except wait for the seizure to subside and make sure that they were not physically harmed in any way. The third child appeared to be in a combination of seizure and severe asthma attack complete with severe intercostals retractions. The parents had no medications, but they had found a bag of IV fluids from God knows where, and had cut a hole in it and tried to give it to him by mouth. I kneeled down to listen to his chest – severe bilateral wheezing. The kid who was about the age of one of my daughters looked panicked, and all I knew to do was to grab him, sit him in my lap, and look in his eyes and say “watch me breathe, breath like I breathe” and to take long slow deep breaths. After about 5 minutes of complete eye contact he got the rhythm with me and slowly his breathing got more measured, controlled and deep. After about 20 minutes he appeared OK, I listened to his chest – wheezy, but not as bad, and told him I had to move on.

I saw every manifestation of both acute, but mainly chronic untreated disease that a physician can see, and realized in stark cold reality just how much we are a nation of chronic disease. And, I was seeing first hand what happens when the medical infrastructure is pulled out from under our nation of the chronically ill – not unlike the old image of pulling the tablecloth from under a very expensively laid banquet table. I saw thousands of diabetics, all of whom had no insulin or oral hypoglycemics and had not been dialyzed for days, and were clearly not being hydrated. I saw the thousands upon thousands of hypertensive patients – essentially all of whom did not have their medicines and were thus at risk for rebound severe hypertension. I saw heroin addicts looking for the methadone clinic. And in the most devastating and haunting memory of all, I saw rows and rows of people from the children to the elderly who were wheelchair bound, because of cerebral palsy, severe congenital defects, amputation, and strokes lined up in rows, many sitting in their adult diapers for days, because there were simply no fresh diapers to change them.

I could go on and on as I dig deeper and deeper into my memory over that first day at the convention center but the stories would be ceaseless repetitions of the same, often futile, attempts to take care of people with a stethoscope, my hands and my words. Officer Mornay soon picked up the rudiments of what I was doing and just emulated me. It wasn’t complicated after all, because we had no real treatment to administer. There were those who had already died. Most were neatly wrapped by family members or their neighbors in the crowd and brought inside and up to the second floor of the center. One person, who had died in their wheelchair, was rolled into the shade and covered with a blanket.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005
Interviewing with Anderson

Wednesday, Sept 7, Dr. Rodwig decided that it was time for me to go home to Jackson, MS and get some R and R with my family. He offered to drive me halfway back if my family would meet me, but I had been told by the security force at the Ritz Carlton that my car was OK which was still parked in the hotel lot was ok, and that they thought they could get it out. I opted to head back downtown; thinking it was for the last time, get my car and go. On the way I got another call from CNN asking if I would be willing to do an interview on the water quality. I told them fine, as I would be downtown, and they promised it would be a short spot. It was then that I met Anderson Cooper and his producer Charlie Moore.

Anderson and Charlie decided to attempt the water quality interview later in the day, and then get me to Baton Rouge. Later in the day came, and just as the live show was starting, we all watched a civilian helicopter crash less than a mile from our position. There was military all around, I told them I was a doctor, so they threw me in the boat and we headed to the crash site, several times hitting parked cars and getting faces full of putrid water. When we got to the site a rescue helicopter had arrived and removed the two pilots from the helicopter that had broken in half and was on the roof of a residential home. The pilots were OK, but the downdraft from the helicopter had capsized one of the military airboats and two soldiers were floundering in the filthy water. We got them out. One insisted in diving back in and retrieving his weapon. We got everyone back to shore, stripped them down to their underwear to get the toxic-water soaked clothes off and evacuated them to a military hospital set up in Kenner.

Later that evening, the CNN crew fed me for the first time in a day and a half. I never knew canned Dinty Moore stew and Crown Royal Scotch could taste so good together. Anderson and Charlie said that they would find a way to get me home if I could stay and give one more interview at the convention center the next day to tell about what had happened.

In the meantime, God came through for me again, a knock at the Winnebago door proved to be Mr. Dan Baum, a reporter from the New Yorker who was looking for someone trustworthy to return his rental car to Baton Rouge the next day, as he was leaving town suddenly. I made an offer that I would get it back as long as I could return it to Jackson, Mississippi. Dan and I had a deal.

Thursday, September 8, 2005
Going home

Anderson, Charlie and I did our walk through the convention center interview in the morning. By then, even I knew I was at the end of my ability to function. Every little reminder of that hellish place, particularly a pair of little kid’s shoes set me off, and I couldn’t stop crying. Anderson and Charlie extracted something usable from that interview. Dan showed up with the car, and I started driving. The first hour on the road, I felt disbelieve that I had gotten out. The second hour I felt a mix of elation about getting out and guilt as to if I should leave. And in the last hour of the drive, the first of the memories started what would be months of relentless haunting. But despite all that had been and all that would be, the singular most joyous moment of my life was that afternoon when I felt the embrace and kisses of my wife Isabelle and my daughters Margaux and Ava again. Their skin was alive and warm and sweet – and so very wonderfully dry.

Filed under: Hurricane Katrina
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Renee

    Thank you Dr. Henderson for your testimony this morning. You are a living example of all good things we as fellow Americans can do for each other. I am sure you touched the hearts of many after the storm.

    August 31, 2008 at 2:40 pm |
  2. S Callahan

    Oh my goodness, you have me crying...you have to write a book and title it "Remember, You are your brother's keeper". Thank You doc, and Cooper , for telling the story. This was a huge wake up call in America about caring for one another. This could be any city, in any part of the world , but this story was in our America and it challenged us and our moral thinking about caring for others. Bless everyone who told the story, and have been changed by it.

    August 31, 2008 at 2:01 pm |
  3. Joanna Smith

    After reading this, I want to say that, even though I'm not a resident of New Orleans, I sincerely appreciate what you did for the people of New Orleans, and am glad that you decided to write a blog to share your experiences. Even though you didn't have access to proper equipment to fully suffice the needs of all you came in contact to, I have no doubt that you made a real difference. I hope that God blesses you and your family, and eases any emotional haunts that may still linger after Katrina.

    August 31, 2008 at 10:50 am |
  4. Virginia Lee Kennedy

    Dear Dr. Gregory Henderson,

    Thank you for being one of God's messenger on earth.

    Your ability to be in the moment, to share your gifts
    to the best of your ability, and to show reverence for
    all humanity is soulfully inspiring.

    August 31, 2008 at 8:55 am |
  5. Hannah

    That's amazing. You wonderful, wonderful man! I'm at a loss for words. I'm so appreciative for all the help you gave our fellow countrymen!

    August 31, 2008 at 7:57 am |
  6. Janice F.

    Thank you for your story. You are a hero and a credit to your profession. I hope the current hurricane does not produce the kind of chaos you describe.

    August 30, 2008 at 11:11 pm |
  7. Char Hinners

    Thank you so much for this devastating story that made me cry even so many months after Katrina's devastation! We need to get this word out even more, ever again, because it could happen with Gustav. My own daughter, Julie, went with her church down there to work and came back changed and so grateful for what she had in Ohio! Blessings on Anderson, Charlie and Dr. Greg Henderson that we should never forget and learn from this and how we can always help our fellow man.

    August 30, 2008 at 1:07 pm |
  8. vee

    the things that you witnessed were 10 times worse than what i had imagined...i am in awe of your courage and the courage of the brave police men who guarded you and helped you get around the city. i am praying for new orleans and the people of the gulf coast region that the Lord will calm the storm...and not repeat the HELL that katrina brought to this area a mere 3 years ago.

    August 30, 2008 at 12:34 pm |
  9. Amy Spivey

    Wow. Just Wow. Very well written and just a horrible reminder of what happened. Thank you Dr. Henderson. You are a hero.

    August 30, 2008 at 11:16 am |
  10. Marcia

    So what is Dr Henderson doing now? He's one of the people I remember vividly from the coverage 3 years ago. He along with the other medical personnel who rode out the aftermath using only the bare essentials to treat the victims should be given true hero status even though many will deny they did anything extraordinary.

    August 30, 2008 at 9:46 am |
  11. Stacy

    Dr. Henderson,

    Thank you for sharing this. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina I was glued to my television and very clearly remember the helicopter crash you noted, as well as your interview in the Convention Center. This blog post adds further harrowing details to those reports I saw three years ago. Though your memories are upsetting, I hope you are proud of the help you provided in what was an unimagineable and impossible situation.

    August 30, 2008 at 6:12 am |
  12. Sandra, Wadley Ga.

    Dr. Henderson:

    Your stethoscope, your hands, your words, and with God's gentle guidance, you comforted the sick, stabilized an asthmatic's labored breathing, made sure toxic water was removed from victim's bodies; you did what heros do, you cared. Caring is what is most important.
    Thank you and God Bless you.

    August 30, 2008 at 12:02 am |
  13. Marcy

    Wow what a wonderful account of both hell and bravery of the people in and around this city. It had to be hard to return to this in such a detailed way and I wanted to thank you, it's the only way anyone will really know what happend and remmeber it in an effort to keep it from happening again. I was impressed with you then and am even more so now.

    Mobile, AL

    August 29, 2008 at 11:55 pm |
  14. Annie Kate

    I remember your interview with Anderson during the aftermath of Katrina. You were inspirational. I could not even imagine what all you had seen and witnessed and still kept going on and helping as many as you could. I appreciate you sharing your side of the story and I still think you are one of the heroes of NOLA during and after Katrina.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 29, 2008 at 11:48 pm |