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Emotional connections: Nurses find mission to Gulf changed their lives

Vallejo Times Herald, 8/28/06

By J.M. Brown
Vallejo Times Herald
August 28, 2006

Stephen Ingerson of Benicia and girlfriend Lisa Meikle observe a strict rule about shop talk.

On their ride home from San Francisco, the UCSF nurses often vent about the daily grind of life-and-death work - the heartbreaking losses, the grumpy patients, the hospital politics. But they only gripe until they exit the Bay Bridge. That's the emotional dividing line between career and home life.

However, in the year since the couple returned from a grueling volunteer mission to aid Hurricane Katrina victims in coastal Mississippi, they've found it's no longer that easy to compartmentalize their feelings. After two weeks of treating desperate and scared families who survived thrashing flood waters and vicious winds with only their lives, the emotional connection to work became — and remains — unavoidable.

"We didn't know how to separate anymore," Meikle said. "We were always able to walk away. Now, not so much."

As the one-year anniversary Hurricane Katrina approaches on Tuesday, the league of local nurses who toiled for weeks inside makeshift shelters, emergency rooms and daycare centers throughout the devastated Gulf Coast recall how their work saved and sustained life, and how the mission forever changed them.

Immediately after the storm slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving more than 1,800 dead and countless more injured, homeless and missing, several Solano County nurses were immediately dispatched to the region.

The willingness of nurse volunteers to travel 2,500 miles, sleep on the floor and go days without bathing left a lasting impression on the Gulf Coast residents they helped. And though few have kept in touch with the people they met, their work was not forgotten.

"We know we would not have made it without the volunteers, no doubt," said Heath Thompson, an administrator for Mississippi's Singing River hospital network, where Solano nurses worked. "It was a huge impact. I have difficulty putting good adjectives on it. The facial expressions and dialogue they had with our nurses tell the story."

Even as recovery work began, the California Nurses Association continued to send nurses throughout the fall and winter, with more than 300 California nurses participating so far.

Based on the momentum California nurses created, the CNA plans today to launch a national ready-to-roll database of registered nurses who could respond to disaster zones. Also, the union has helped establish a clinic in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward that will employ nurses nationwide on a rotating schedule.

While rewarding, the volunteer work was grueling. Many nurses worked 12-hour shifts or longer for two or more weeks without a break.

"I was exhausted 9 12 days of straight work," Ingerson said of his stint in the Mississippi hospital. "I've never worked that hard."

The Benicia High School graduate and girlfriend Meikle, who were part of the first wave of dispatched California nurses, sharpened their caretaking skills more than their medical ones at Singing River in Pascagoula, Miss.

During a recent interview at Ingerson's Benicia home, the couple, who has been together for five years, recalled how they sidestepped a posh assignment and a political fight to get to the most needy.

Before and after his 12-hour emergency room shifts, Ingerson played with children in the nursery, where Meikle took care of children whose parents worked at the hospital non-stop even though their own homes were destroyed. Seeing children as the storm's most vulnerable victims, Ingerson especially bonded with a 2-year-old named Angel.

"She fell in love with him," said Meikle, a Walnut Creek resident who works in UCSF's intensive care nursery.

The patient Meikle remembers most was an obese man who was in bad health after being rescued from his attic. After treating him one night, she walked out of his room and uttered her typical, "Have a good night."

When he sweetly said good night in return, it stopped her dead in her tracks.

"It just broke my heart — he really didn't have anyone," she said. "Maybe I was just emotionally over the edge, but it was hard.

"No patient has ever said good night to me. To me, it's such a personal thing to say. It made me realize how sweet and wonderful these people were."

A week after the storm, the two were among the first wave of California nurses to head to the Gulf Coast. Their first assignment was at an inland Mississippi nursing home that catered to wealthy clients 9 certainly not the raw and rugged humanitarian mission they had expected.

The couple gave about 20 baths to grateful patients before Singing River sent buses to collect the California contingent to relieve its exhausted staff. But they were quickly bogged down by red tape as the hospital, state and California nurses union butted heads over interstate licensing and whether unionized workers should work in a non-union facility.

The issues were settled within a day or so, and the Californians got to work, relieving the regular nurses so they could check on their properties, call relatives and friends and just breathe.

"The California nurses, they came to help, they were serious. They wanted to give these nurses a break," Thompson, the Singing River official, said in a phone interview last week. He will host a candle-lighting ceremony at Singing River's Ocean Springs, Miss., campus Tuesday in honor of the volunteers.

After an initial assignment in a clinic, Meikle worked in the hospital's daycare and distribution center for donated supplies and food. Ingerson took on ER shifts, and helped treat a father who lost his son in a car accident more than a week after the storm.

The father and son crashed after leaving a bar, where they were letting go of some of the storm-related stress, Ingerson said. The son, who was driving, died at the hospital and the father suffered a broken back.

"They had already lost everything," Ingerson said. "The storm was gone but it still had its effects."

There were lighter moments.

As patients and hospital workers taught the couple how to say a respectable "Y'all," Ingerson got locals doing the California version: "What's up, yo!"

As much as the couple gave, they received. Patients repeatedly thanked them, many of them asking the nurses, in that patently Southern way: "Are you getting stuff to eat?"

The volunteer mission's impact may be felt far beyond the Gulf Coast. To mark the Katrina anniversary, CNA officials said they expect to announce this week a permanent nursing network with several other states that will respond to future disasters. Several nurses said relief agencies and government officials were doing a poor job initially of identifying where out-of-state volunteers could do the greatest good and how to get them there.

"If something did happen here, some of the people we were in contact with would figure out a way to show their support," Ingerson said. "I don't think that would have happened before."

Once officials guided the team to Singing River, nurse practitioner Ann MacKenzie of Crockett said the mission provided a rare opportunity to ease emotional, as well as physical, wounds. In her work at Kaiser hospital in Richmond, she often has little time to listen to people's personal problems.

"It was nice to be a volunteer because I could sit and take the time to talk to people," MacKenzie said during an interview Saturday.

She took the assignment just five months after volunteering in Sri Lanka to help victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

"That's really what inspired me to go to Katrina," she said. "God, if I can travel half way around the work to Sri Lanka, I can certainly go to Mississippi."

At the Singing River hospital in Ocean Springs, MacKenzie worked in a clinic set up for hurricane victims whose problems 9 food poisoning, lacerations, tetanus shots 9 did not require ER attention.

She remembers one woman lost her husband in the storm after just recently having had surgery for breast cancer.

"It was obvious to me that she was still in shock," MacKenzie said. "She didn't have any clothes. She was wearing clothes that belonged to other people."

Like the other nurses, she was greeted with smiles.

"It's true what they say about southern hospitality – people couldn't have been nicer," MacKenzie said.

That kindness is what, a year later, has stuck with Joelle Marek Treanor, a Vallejo-born labor-and-delivery nurse who now lives and works in Watsonville. She operated a tetanus clinic for two weeks at the Pascagoula hospital.

Treanor remembered a woman who had lost everything and was all alone. She clutched the nurse and sobbed.

"When we hugged we just didn't let go," Marek Treanor said. "The people that were working so hard, starting all over again, that's what really troubled me in my heart. People that were almost my grandparents' age 9 scratched up exhausted and beat down."

Still, she said, they would "always leave with a big smile on their face and show the southern spirit."

In the weeks and months after the tragedy, recovering residents were still grateful for the help, said Cezar Falconitin, an ER nurse at Kaiser hospital in Vallejo who operated a mobile medical trailer in Mississippi for a week in December.

The Vallejo resident remembers a homeless senior who thanked him for trying to treat a gangrenous foot and high blood pressure, for which the man had no money to buy medicine. The case was so severe Falconitin sent him to a hospital.

Falconitin, a native of the Philippines who also lives in Vallejo, and a doctor parked their blue mobile clinic in Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., treating patients for flu-like symptoms, administering tetanus shots and distributing vital medications for seven hours a day.

While the region had begun recovering, it was clear to Falconitin there was still a great need for medical care as exhausted local doctors and nurses quit.

"There was a lot of help coming, but it was not enough," he said. "Most of the patients we saw, they needed continued follow-up. I don't think they're going to get it."

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