A Nurse's Faith Following Katrina

After Katrina, this nurse couldn't stop thinking about New Orleans. Her hope and faith is what brought her there to help.

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- Posted on Sep 1, 2008

Nurse Nonna Bullock had hope and faith after Katrina

The day Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans, the main thing I knew about the city was its crime rate. I'd heard of the French Quarter and Mardi Gras. But in rural Mississippi where I live, New Orleans mostly made news for murders. 

Actually, that first day, I didn't have much time to think about New Orleans. My town of Ellisville was hit too, and as a nurse I had my hands full. I had to weave around downed trees just to get to the hospital, and I arrived to find that the power was out and the water cut off.

I ended up riding in an ambulance with a heart attack patient to a treatment center with power. His heart nearly failed again on the highway, and for a few hours I was all that stood between him and death.

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It wasn't until Wednesday at a hotel close to Memphis, where I stopped with my family on the way to stay temporarily with relatives in Indiana, that I turned on the television and saw the drowning city. I sat right down on the bed, unable to speak.

The images flashed by, people on roofs, dogs swimming, trash everywhere, freeways swarming with survivors, hospital staff treating patients in a parking garage. 

My nurse's hands itched to get there and help, do something, anything. But then I thought of the danger, and the distance—New Orleans is about 140 miles from Ellisville—and knew we had to press on to Indiana. I felt almost guilty for my ignorance about the city. Those were real people dying there, real families with real houses.

What if it had been my husband, William, or our grown son and daughter? William drove through New Orleans sometimes. He's a long-haul trucker. Would he have made it? Would someone have rescued him, tended his injuries? On the road to Indiana, I kept the radio on. Lord, it's not right. Those people don't deserve that. Send someone to help them.

Ellisville soon picked itself up and life returned to normal at Forest General Hospital, where I worked on the heart bypass floor. I kept watching the news, searching for signs that New Orleans, too, was coming back. Every day, reports were the same. Neighborhoods abandoned. Houses rotting. Population plummeting. 

I paid special attention whenever hospitals were mentioned. Even six months after the storm, health care in the city was dire. Six hospitals were shut altogether. Others barely coped with skeleton crews. Doctors and nurses had fled and never returned. Patients were waiting for over six hours just to be admitted to the emergency room. Others were being sent to Baton Rouge 80 miles away.

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"It's not fair," I said to William one night at dinner. "Where are the doctors and nurses? Why isn't anyone going down there to help?"

"Well, would you want to? Where would they live? Everything's still in pretty bad shape."

I nodded, knowing that he was right and knowing that I would never have the courage to wade into a ruined place like that. But something about the whole situation ate at me.

I'd been a waitress in a diner for 15 years before finally getting up the gumption to earn a GED and enroll in nursing school at the University of Southern Mississippi. I'd worked so hard to become a nurse because I longed to do what my mother and my sister Sharon Rose did—care for people and help them heal. I was doing that at Forest General. So why didn't it feel like enough anymore?

One day a friend from nursing school named Rhonda Shoemake phoned. She's what's called a traveling nurse, roving from hospital to hospital, filling in where staff is needed. Such nurses are in high demand, since there are always shortages. But of course you have to be willing to travel. It's not exactly family friendly.

"Nonna, you're never going to believe where I just started working," she said. "New Orleans! At Tulane Medical Center, right near downtown. It's the one where they treated patients in the parking garage right after the storm. I was so surprised.

"They're still struggling, but everyone here is wonderful. You'd think I was God's gift to nursing the way they reacted when I showed up. I think they're really desperate. Gosh, girl, if you ever wanted to travel, this is where you'd want to come."

We talked for a while more and I hung up, feeling strangely unsettled. Rhonda was a little more adventurous than I was, but we weren't all that different. I tried to picture her there in New Orleans, my mind still crowded with images of the city in ruins, everything hot and falling apart.

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Of course it was nearly a year later. Surely the air-conditioning was back up and they weren't still working in the parking garage. What might it be like?

I think they're really desperate. I knew in my heart they had to be. I'd been knowing it since that day I turned on the television and saw the city drowning. Lord, what's going on here? Are you sending me a message?

That evening I tentatively mentioned Rhonda's call to William. He looked thoughtful. "It's not the first time you've talked about New Orleans."

"William! What are you getting at? I could never do what she's doing. I was just saying it sounded interesting."

"Really? Why couldn't you, if that's what you wanted?"

"Who said anything about wanting? It's one hundred and forty miles away! We live here, in Ellisville."

"I know. But it's not like we have young kids. And I'm gone a lot too. I have to be honest, Nonna, you really have been talking about New Orleans a lot. I didn't want to say anything. But now that you bring it up...

"Did I bring it up?"

"Why don't you at least just go and check it out?"

"I can't drive into New Orleans! It's too dangerous."

"It's not that dangerous. I go there all the time. What if I drove you?"

I looked at him. How had this conversation ended up here? My eyes roved around the room, taking in every familiar object, our old table, comfortable chairs. And then I thought of the TV, what I'd seen there. Had they really treated people in the parking garage?

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"Okay," I heard myself say. "But only if you go with me."

The drive took two and a half hours. William drove and my friend Cheryl, who was also a nurse, came along with us. 

As we approached the city, I stared out the window, unsure whether I was looking for signs of recovery or devastation. I saw both. Whole neighborhoods were still derelict, houses marked with spray paint tallying the dead. We drew closer to downtown and signs of life appeared. Cars on the streets. Trees in leaf. People on the sidewalks. Restaurants.

We saw the hospital from the highway. It sprawled across a city block, brown with a wide glass entry. In minutes we were winding down the exit ramp and pulling into the cool dark of the parking garage. I peered around, as if remnants of the makeshift triage station might still be there.

A nurse manager met us and began a tour. My heart sank. The corridors were dingy, some loud and chaotic, others eerily quiet. "We're rebuilding," the manager said. "I'm not going to gloss it over for you. But all 233 of our beds are open, and most of them are filled every day."

We came to the transplant ward and I looked in at a patient. For a brief, confused moment I thought I recognized the man. Then I shook my head and realized he only reminded me of the countless people I'd seen on TV. Not well off, ailing, clinging to life.

I glanced around what I could see of his room from the hall, then at the hall itself, recently repainted, bustling with doctors and nurses. There was an urgency to the floor, a sense of quiet purpose, like a confident hand reaching out to the city and healing its wounds.

"Is this it?" I wondered aloud. "Is this where I belong?" By the time we finished the tour I knew the answer.

I've been at Tulane more than a year. William and I still live in Ellisville, but my schedule is more like his now. I work six days every two weeks, Thursday to Sunday in New Orleans, next two days at home, then back to work Wednesday and Thursday.

In New Orleans I stay at a hotel—with Cheryl and Sharon Rose, who decided to come to Tulane, too, and now commutes with us. Guess who makes the drive most often? I do, and I love it.

Even more, I love New Orleans. At first I hardly ventured from the hospital and our hotel room. But little by little I got out and explored. Let me tell you, it doesn't take long for New Orleans to grab hold of you. We like strolling the French Quarter in the morning, looking at the parks and the flowers and the beautiful old buildings. The city is coming back to life.

I feel a renewed sense of purpose too. Some days I think of all the times I asked God who was going to help heal this lovely historic city. I should have known what his answer would be. Me.

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