Storm hero armed with a stethoscope

By Tim Harper
The Toronto Star
Copyright 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.

NEW ORLEANS — When the levees burst and the darkness brought danger, it seemed at times that an entire city had armed itself with guns.

But Dave Bryant armed himself with a stethoscope and a bottle of Gatorade.

Then he flung himself into the Louisiana Superdome, which had become a cauldron of human misery and desperation for tens of thousands one year ago.

Bryant, a 33-year-old emergency room physician, had talked himself back home from Texas the week Katrina hit, hitching a ride on an emergency chopper to help people he'd never met.

While much of the world remembers the New Orleans police officers who deserted in the city's hours of agony, Bryant was among the many heroes who saved lives.

The U.S. Coast Guard was credited with airlifting 33,000 New Orleanians to safety.

Firefighters stayed on the job, even if they often had to look on helplessly when a lack of water pressure left their hoses impotent again raging flames.

And doctors tended to the needy in the Superdome, the convention centre, the triage centre set up at the international airport - even on highway overpasses slick with human waste and garbage, where evacuees sat in the searing sun, dehydrated and ill.

Because of Bryant, a little girl was safely born in the chaos of the Superdome, but almost immediately he was faced with a crisis. The first delivery he attended was an emergency, a dangerous situation known as a placenta previa.

"I turned ghost white," Bryant recalls. "If this woman started bleeding, she would bleed to death before we could deliver."

The only way to save the unborn child would have been an emergency Caesarean-section, with no anesthesia.

"I was scared stiff I would kill this lady, but thought we may save the baby. I was fully prepared to cut her belly open. If I didn't do it, nobody else would and she would die," he said.

Instead, he and a colleague essentially hijacked Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's helicopter, demanding immediate help to get the woman out of the dome and to Baton Rouge to have her baby.

Bryant heard a colleague yell into the radio: "Yeah, well you can tell Gov. Blanco that if she wants to deliver this baby herself, then she can stay on the helicopter."

He took another woman through six hours of labour, with no other option because reported sniper fire at the dome had grounded emergency choppers at that point.

It was 3 a.m. He had dim generator lights and some flashlights.

There was no pain medication.

"Ma'am, we're going to do this the old-fashioned way," Bryant told the labouring woman.

There were immediate complications. In the darkness, the baby began to emerge head first, but got stuck. Bryant managed to deliver the baby's head, but found the umbilical cord wrapped around the newborn's neck. Then the baby's shoulder got stuck.

"We were back at turn-of-the-century medicine. She grinned and she bore it," he said.

When the healthy looking newborn began crying Bryant, bathed in perspiration and amniotic fluid, turned to the woman and said: "Ma'am, if you name this baby Katrina, I'm putting her back."

There were other improvisations at the dome - treating a National Guardsman who shot himself in the leg and borrowing an oxygen machine from an elderly man to deal with asthmatic children. Despite his efforts, six people were reported to have died at the Superdome and Bryant fears many others may have eventually succumbed to illnesses, fatigue and dehydration from their time there.

At one point, 40 elderly residents from a nursing home were brought in.

Short of identifying the diabetics among them, Bryant said, not much could be done.

"I said, we'll do what we can, but we're doing nothing heroic here. If they die, they die, there is nothing we can do."

A year later, those who deal in emergency care here say they don't believe they are prepared to deal with another storm of Katrina proportions.

The American College of Emergency Physicians said 82 per cent of its membership believes Gulf Coast hospitals are not ready for another hurricane.

And more than one-third said in a survey that if things were not significantly improved a year from now, they would consider moving to another state.

They also see an immediate need for more emergency and long-term care for psychiatric patients who are suffering from the stress of the storm.

The New Orleans fire department is also complaining that it's undermanned, down 75 employees from pre-Katrina levels.

On any given day another 100 firefighters are on sick leave, and five trucks are out of commission because of mechanical problems caused by working in saltwater during the flood.

Blanco called in the National Guard to back up police when crime began spiking up again in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Bryant says his time at New Orleans inner-city Charity Hospital, where four shootings a day "was a good day," prepared him for the tumult of the dome.

"I was used to showing up at a mass-casualty scene and the first thing you look around for is an incident commander," he said. "I asked around, 'who's in charge here?' and all I got was 'I don't know.'"

He and four other volunteers set up an aid station.

That was the day things began to spiral downhill, he recalls.

Patience was at an end and they were besieged by angry evacuees who were essentially imprisoned in the dome.

"There was no order. No one was in charge," he recalled.

"It was a big blob of people with a lot of security people standing around. The greatest tranquilizer you can give people is a little bit of information.

"Just tell them what's going on and a lot of time they'll calm down and you can reason with them.

"But these people had been without food, without water, without electricity and, most important, without information for two days at that point.

"It was a large population standing around waiting to be told where to go and what to do."

More than anything else, Bryant recalls the total lack of communication inside the dome.

Whenever one of the incessant reports about someone needing help reached him and other doctors, there was only one way to respond.

"You had to run through the angry crowd, try to find the gate, get the person, throw them over your shoulder and run back to the aid station," he said.

Today, Bryant and his wife Molly have moved back to their native Texas, where she teaches school and he works in the emergency department of two Dallas hospitals.

"We had planned on moving back at some point. It was difficult and emotional," he said, "but we thought it was time.

"We kept asking ourselves, 'are we running out?'"

Eventually, they decided they wouldn't have been able to stay long enough to enjoy the fruits of the New Orleans comeback.

And Bryant worries about the fate of his former city, if the same levels of government are again on the frontlines of responding to another catastrophic storm.

"The only thing that is going to save us is small people doing big things," he said. 

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