In preparation for our move tomorrow, I’ve been going through endless piles of papers and other random “stuff”, much of it garbage, but some of it, however, proved priceless. Things such as a journal, entitled simply, New Orleans: August 31, 2005 to September 12, 2005. A combination of several random note entries and one or two polished drafts I managed to scribble down during my rare, few and far between breaks over the course of 13 days volunteering as a paramedic during the Hurricane Katrina crisis.
I initially became involved through the former medical director of my UCLA paramedic program, Dr. CJ O’Brien, who, by 2005 had become a personal friend, and was also the owner and CEO of HALO, a non profit disaster relief organization. I received the phone call to be part of a relief mission on the 30'th of August. As I was a working paramedic at the time, and North American EMS agencies were giving extended time off to anyone who planned to assist, I said yes immediately. A day later, I arrived in New Orleans, landing at what was by then, an airport closed to all but essential traffic.
The following entry from my journal is one of the more formed and coherent entries during my 13 days on scene. Reading it today, I experienced a complicated mix of several emotions. I’m sure it does not require saying, but being involved in the rescue efforts during that disaster was truly a crash course in the foundations of completely shameful and ineffective national fuck up responses to a natural disaster. It was also, in several ways, a profoundly life alerting experience, where I saw the best and worst humanity had to offer.
Notes from the journal entry dated September 6, 2005
Harsh, yet exacting realities. Welcome to my life as of late. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and I just finished a very long sixteen hour shift and am on extended time off until tomorrow at seven am. I know myself well enough to know that is a very good thing, as my frustration level is at the overflow point, the result of a demonstrated almost five day collective ass-sitting-on-hands session by this administration.
“An American Response To A Crisis” and “Misery In The Heartland” are the two glib headlines I witnessed while channel surfing in our communications centre. It is fair to say that those of us working front lines on this national disaster, one that is quickly becoming part of a larger archive of “Big American Response Fuck Ups” could come up with different headlines. No doubt a whole lot more exacting.
But instead of a bitter and emotional view of yet another ineffective Bush response, I’ll offer some snapshots of what my reality of this crisis has been from a very personal perspective.
Though first, as a needed preface, to those who view anything this administration says as nothing less than unadulterated fact, let me quote a line from “Pulp Fiction”. Ving Rhames, playing the high end criminal Marcalis Wallace, says to Butch, a boxer on the take, played by Bruce Willis,
“when you feel that sting, that’s pride fucking with your head”.
I say, if you feel the need to justify one single thing in a misguided attempt to mitigate the undeniable farce this response has been…well, that’s pride fucking with your head.
Moving on … A few things I will not soon forget.
First, the image and sound of a lone dog on a roof as it gazed down at the water, barking in earnest. Following the dogs gaze, we saw was the form of a mans body, hideously bloated and lodged on the porch of the house. I’m guessing it may have been the owner of the mutt. Today, when our boat sailed by the house I looked for the dog, however, he was gone.
Second, my experience in the convention center. How do I even start? I became familiar with that place two days before the cameras exposed the world to a new definition of the terms desperate and helpless. After entering the convention center, my first uncontrollable instinct was to vomit, which I did. The combined stench of body odour, human waste, rotting food, and decomposing human remains will unfortunately be one that stays with me and every other person unfortunate enough to call that place an element of personal reality.
Though what stands out from that place are two incidents. First, the forty six year old soccer coach who was having some “bad pains” as expressed by his thirteen year old daughter when she sprinted full tilt to our team across the convention centre floor. Upon realizing the man was having what I’m sure was a massive myocardial infarction, my growing dread of what would be the outcome of this event was something I tried to contain. When I logged a time of death thirty three minutes later, after resuscitation was unsuccessful, I was aware of a hand on my belt loop. It was the mans youngest of three children. A boy, age five. He looked up at me and said nothing. My partner Andrea confirmed he had been holding on for almost twenty minutes. Generally I never allow my own emotion to be my guiding response to someone in crisis. Here, that would have been a very vicious form of cruelty. I picked the boy up, slowly rocking him, crying silently with him for a good fifteen minutes, until his mother had to unclasp his hands from my neck as it was time to move on to a new medical crisis.
The very clear duality of the ninety six year old black woman who, minutes before moving on to I’m hoping somewhere better, kissed the cheek of the great grand daughter who held her right hand. She had just explained to me that this same girl was starting at Tulane medical school this year. Beaming, she said, “At her age I never would have thought that for a black woman. Never would have thought it”
When her life ended a few minutes later, it was with her family, and it was peaceful. We honored the DNR order that the woman had on her chart from the nursing home, and we explained to the family we would stay with them for as long as they needed us. That turned out to be just under nine minutes as we were called to yet another medical emergency, this time a diabetic crisis. However, there is one last thing I’d like to mention about the scenario just described. The ability this family demonstrated in achieving a level of personal intimacy during the death of a revered matriarch, in the center of what is a woefully inadequate attempt at a national response was a powerful image. One I am a better human being for bearing witness to.
That has been my reality for the past six days. Yeah, I’m looking forward to the break.