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Excerpt from Face to Face with Katrina Survivors: A First Reponders Tribute:

Dr. Lemuel Moyť

Two hours into my first shift at the Katrina clinic, I had my first young mother as a patient. I may have made a difference for her. To be honest, I donít think I did until the very end of our visit-Iím not really sure. However, if we had been operating a regular clinic where you paid for what you received, then I would be the one writing the check.

The nurse saw her first, carefully charting her vital signs, and writing a brief note that the woman had a sore throat and swollen glands. Walking into the room, I was surprised to see not one woman with her children, but only four children of various ages. The youngest looked to be about three; the oldest was a young teenager. While three of them were sitting on the low cot, to my left, the oldest was on the bed to my right. This oldest child was the fifteen year old mother, Donita Phillips.

The contrast between Ms. Phillips and the other three children astonished me. Ms. Phillips was the detritus of life. Dust completely encased her soft, dark face and scalp, and her full head of tangled hair hadnít been combed for days. Small abrasions in various stages of healing covered her face, neck and arms, and her feet were terribly contused and swollen.

Watching this short, broken young girl, the thought that this was the most tired person Iíd ever met! shocked me like a physical blow. The fatigue didnít just pull at her red-rimmed eyes - it drew her cheeks, mouth, and jaws downward, as if the skin was being pulled off her face. Covered by weariness, the condition consumed her, hollowing her out. I couldnít begin to guess how long this young woman had gone without sleep -she looked as though sheíd never slept.

Yet, the three younger children appeared fine. Between two and four years old, all were clean, hair combed and in place, each dressed in a new set of clean clothes. And they were awake and refreshed --- the full force of life coursing through them. They reminded me of sisters sitting in church. They wanted to talk but, knowing that they shouldnít, followed their training and not their impulses. The contrast between these spotless, attentive children on the one hand, and Ms. Phillips on the other hand was astonishing. It was like every drop of the essence of life had been painfully wrung out of Ms. Phillips and poured, renewed and refreshed, into each of her children.

Ms. Phillips had opened one eye as I approached her. She was not attentive to my introduction, to my questions, or, for that matter to my exam. Finally, I just put the chart down, sat with her so our faces were level, and asked "How can I help you, Ms. Phillips." The thought Antibiotics and twenty-four hours of sleep would be the best for this desperately tired woman, forced its way through my stunned mind.

I was way off.

She looked at me, and said, simply "Iíve lost my baby." Her head was up now, new tears following the dirty tracks of those that had flowed down her face before.

Instantly agitated, I asked, "You mean here, or in New Orleans?"

"Sheís gone!" Ms. Phillips replied, in as agitated a voice as her cloak of fatigue would allow. "I think she got pulled away!"

Emergency! my mind shouted at me. If the child was missing at the Reliant Arena, I would need help, and help fast. A search must commence at once! "I would like to try to help you," I stated, failing to keep the alarm out of my voice. "Please, can you tell me about this?"

Her head aching with the lack of sleep, Ms. Phillips began to speak in soft, slurred, but understandable words. Her children and I listened alertly, her phrases swaying heavily in a deep, southern accent.

"The five of us were in our home. When the water started to run along the streets, I knew we had to get out of there. I never moved as fast as I did those few minutes, getting my four girls ready. I got us over to Momís house, which was on higher ground."

"Go on, please, Ms. Phillips," I urged. "I need to know about your missing child!"

"But I left so fast, I forgot to pick up some things we needed. So, I went back to get them. When I came outside, the water was already up to my waist." Ms. Phillips was less than five feet tall.

She then made the one statement that began for me one of the most horrifying conversations Iíll ever have.

"You know," she continued, allowing her eyes to meet mine for the first time," the worst thing about wading through that water was a manhole cover."

"Manhole cover?" I repeated, completely confused. "What do you mean?"

What are you doing listening to this? my mind raged. You have to find out where that child was lost!

"Many times," she said, in a dry monotone, "the rush of all of that water pushed the manhole covers off, making a hole in the street."

"YesÖ" I said, still not clued in.

"It makes a hole that you can get caught in as you try to walk through the dirty water."

"A hole you couldnít see, right?" I asked, my concern for the missing baby pushed aside by a new, thick revulsion to what I feared was coming.

"Yeah. You would be walking along, and suddenly, you would fall down into one of those holes. If you fell all the way down you could drown. I think some people died that way. Most times you would have a big swallow of that water as you got pulled under. Parents were all afraid of them. Thatís why we didnít want our children walking in the water if you couldnít see the bottom. If your baby fell into one of those holes, she would beÖbe gone. OH!!" she cried out suddenly.

My stomach turned over and my mind reeled with this new horror. Anybody walking through this water in the streets was in danger of serious disease, even death from the fetid water. Full of dirt, sewage, dead bodies and petroleum waste, this mixture was toxic to the skin. We were already seeing thick running sores full of blood and pus that required immediate antibiotic therapy. The effect of a mouthful of this poison was particularly ghastly. And, when you fell into one, you didnít just get a mouthful. You got a stomach-full. And thatís if you were lucky. An unlucky little girl would actually breathe the fluid in. Her lungs, already working overtime for air, would receive a ghastly mix of liquid waste and gasoline that could hardly be considered water anymore.

"NO. NO!" she cried.

And, worse than that, a young child, only three feet high would fall right through the open manhole. Right to the bottom. She would disappear suddenly, falling rapidly through tens of feet. Instantly, the toxic slush would slide into her, filling her mouth and nose and eyes with the poison. Frightened, she would inhale it into her lungs, where it would kill her in two to three minutes. In the dark, and alone.

"MY BABYíS GONE!"

Over a period of twenty-five years, I had seen some ghastly injuries. Dog bites, machine accidents, traumatic amputations, even a decapitation. Yet, until this moment in my career, I never wanted to bolt from a patientís room as I did right now. I didnít think I could bear what I feared I would hear. But, there was no way I could leave her alone, as she explained to me what happened to her child...