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Alumni Dispatches

Suzanne Cowley

MPH ’79

Among the Ruins of Plaquemine’s Parrish, Hope

suzanne cowlyStudying at the School of Hygiene and Public Health provided me with a keen awareness of the global aspect of public health and an appreciation of how cultural, environmental and individual factors affect public health. I never forgot that lesson.

In August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, I was struck by the devastation of the landscape and loss of dignity among the survivors. I watched the interviews of the nurses and doctors at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was deeply moved when I saw them with their patients on the roof, waiting for evacuation.  A few minutes later, one of the nurses described how the staff worked days without sleep or nourishment and, out of desperation, they had to administer intravenous therapy (IVs ) to themselves in order to continue working to care for their patients. I became outraged with the comfort of my own life and knew that I wanted to help.

I contacted the U.S. Public Health Service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., and found that they were supporting a massive relief effort in the Gulf Coast. They were providing volunteer medical personnel to three temporary clinics in Louisiana on a rotating two-week basis. Although I had been a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service (1979 to 1984), I was in the inactive reserves and had to activate in order to assist in the recovery effort. My two-week assignment was from February 21 through March 7, 2006, as a Team Leader and Nurse Officer at a temporary clinic (FEMA trailer) in Plaquemine’s Parrish, Port Sulfur, Louisiana. This was about 30 to 40 miles south of New Orleans at the southern tip of Louisiana where Hurricane Katrina first made landfall. At the time I arrived, the clinic had been operational for several weeks, as the residents were returning to reclaim their homes (in ruin) and they needed medical care.

A massive relief effort by DHHS was still underway when I arrived ... yes ... six months later. The temporary clinics were staffed with volunteer doctors, nurses and pharmacists from all over the U.S. Across the street, the American Red Cross had numerous trailers and staff were handing out bottled water, ice and blankets. Our temporary clinic was set up within in a FEMA temporary housing camp for construction workers from all over the U.S., located in the local high school football stadium. Our clinic was stocked with medical supplies, and we had a pharmacist on site who dispensed drugs prescribed by the doctors from a massive tractor trailer stocked with free drugs. Patients with medical conditions requiring more intensive treatment such as surgery or other specialized care were triaged to New Orleans where a MASH-type unit was set up in the convention center. Yes, believe it or not ... this was six months later.

Plaquemines Parrish was still in ruin, the homes were sheared off and blown to the edges of the street—with clothes hanging in the closets, toys and debris scattered all over the yards—and a few cars still hanging from tree limbs. Only remnants of their lives were left here, but residents came back to reclaim their lives, even if it was only a only a cement slab. In fact, an elderly couple married for 50 years came to the clinic for medical treatment and told me that they slept together on their cement slab the prior night, their first night back to Port Sulfur.They said they were going to rebuild their life.

There was no running water outside of our camp, no underground sewage systems or electricity, and in particular, no health care within miles and miles of our clinic. Our clinic represented the “Public Health Mission” at its best; our medical team was dedicated and our patients were extraordinary. Most of the people we saw had no idea what medicines they were taking and had not seen a doctor since the storm. Primary care and supportive care were given by extraordinary volunteer health professionals.

What did I learn from all of this? The medical volunteers across America who left their homes and families to assist in Katrina recovery were examples of the real meaning of public health service. I felt honored to be a part of this mission involving hundreds of other health professionals who came to the Gulf Coast to dedicate their time in service of others in need. It was truly rewarding to hear several months later that a permanent health care clinic had been built in Plaquemines Parish.

Suzanne Cowley graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1979 (MPH) and is a Captain in the Inactive Reserve Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, DHHS.
 

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