Hospital hallways are a special kind of convoluted, methodical in their turns meant to deposit visitors with mysterious efficiency at a set of double doors affixed with red “no” signs.It seems like a mistake when I finally arrive at these doors, squinting at the walls in hopes of spotting a magic button, but it’s exactly the right place.Someone swipes a card in a slot near the knob.The doors open with a hesitant jerk.“Go to the very end.Last room to your left,” a nurse says, the soft splat splat of her shoes receding amidst whirs and beeps and white light.The white of seventies sci-fi shows.The coldness of unclasped hands.This is exactly the right place.

Dear vermiform appendix,

It pains me to write this. But at least now I can write. For a while, there was too much pain to do anything besides curl up in a ball and drool like a sad walrus on an unloved beach. Now, with some space between us, I can finally share my side of the story, and with an obvious debt to Alanis Morissette, there are some things, dear appendix, that you oughta know.

You remember the night I made a meal entirely with ingredients from Trader Joe’s? What a delicious meal that was. Being that at the time I was relying on Trader Joe’s for about 70% of my caloric intake, it was also a somewhat ordinary meal, and it was a safe one; no meat, and no dairy. You probably remember that, although I’m not even a vegetarian, I sometimes have a unexplainable hankering for vegan food. You can thank my vegan ex-girlfriends and my friend Goldie.

So when I began vomiting a few hours later, followed by fever, chills, body aches, stomach cramps, dry heaves, and then a persistent dull pain in my lower right abdomen, I first felt angry at that suddenly cruel and treacherous monster named Trader Joe’s. This was the worst food poisoning I had since my experience with Mystery Lou down in Argentina, but on many levels it was more devastating. A breach of trust with Trader Joe’s would be, along with the waning of print media and the ceaseless conflicts overseas, the Sadness Of Our Generation.

It was time to see the best doctor in the world, Dr. Garcia, who told me the truth: it was you, vermiform appendix. How dare you make me throw that kind, caring, dependable Trader Joe’s under the bus like that, when all you had to offer me was your own vestigial confusion?

Now look, I understand that you’ve had it rough. A bit of an identity crisis and all that. Many of my other organs that knew you, that saw you around, they liked you – but they also knew that you were ultimately up to no good. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t just listen to them sooner. I’ve since met people who’ve had their appendixes removed preemptively, say, before traveling overseas for a year, just to get the damn thing done with and get some closure.

You lived right under my nose for so long before I really got to know you, but once I really did—and it breaks my heart to say this—you quickly became impossible to live with. You were like that neighbor that I’d never met for years, who, right after we finally met, decided he could start blasting reggaeton at 6:30 in the morning. Only in your case, there was no landlord to call, and the reggaeton was potentially fatal.

Dr. Garcia immediately sent me to a CT scan and a few hours later it was confirmed: The pain in my life was from you, and you had to leave. Still, I fought this conclusion; I didn’t want to let you go. I asked right away if there wasn’t something I could do to make things go back to the way there were, maybe couples counseling, maybe a nice weekend getaway with just the two of us—someplace that’s not in the news, like Togo or the Pitcairn Islands—but no. That night I was to go to the hospital.

It was a bad night for sympathy. A couple friends of mine had dying or injured pets, one friend was having a final going-away party before a permanent move to New York, and it was raining in Los Angeles, which meant that no one wanted to drive, especially the people in their cars. However, my friends Jake and Dan came to the rescue and arranged for my safe transport to and from that place where I would finally kiss you goodbye.

Some good people helped me through our separation. I had a pretty wild anesthesiologist named Mikey who is apparently known for the “awesome music” (the nurse’s words) he plays during operations. Matthew, my laparoscopic surgeon, I found later, does not agree with said nurse’s assessment. Apparently the battle during my operation, between Mikey and Matthew, was whether to listen to Gloria Gaynor or Coldplay. You decide which, if either, is awesome.

If they let me choose, I would have requested reggaeton, specifically “Chacarron Macarron” by El Mudo, as loud as possible, but it didn’t matter, because whatever they did play, I didn’t hear at all. When I came to, I was in a dark room called RECOVERY with two people I had never seen before and would never knowingly see again. They seemed bored, so I knew that everything was swell.

Staying overnight in a hospital is like trying to sleep on a cross-country bus. I was awoken constantly all night by strangers, and for often logical but also disorienting reasons. I passed the time between intrusions by watching, (in order of quality, coincidentally) Rear Window (awesome), The Karate Kid (amusing), and Dinner For Schmucks (corrosively dumb). During my fitful sleep, I was somehow able to avoid having a nightmare about being pushed out of my window by Raymond Burr, though if that would’ve prevented me from watching Dinner With Schmucks, I’d have understood.

The Trader Joe’s dinner was on a Wednesday night, and after vomiting it up, I didn’t eat solid food again until Saturday afternoon, when a kind nurse brought me Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and a big brown bowl of the thickest, most savory soup I’d ever tasted. I decided to finish off the soup first, and then noticed they didn’t give me any gravy for the potatoes. I then realized what I’d just eaten an entire bowl of.

If you’re ever in a hospital again, try it some time. They’ll totally give you a free pass for that kind of thing.

After about seventeen hours, I was on my feet and out of the hospital, six pounds lighter than I’d been on Wednesday, and who knows how much of that was you, dear vermiform appendix. It was tough at first to get my old strength back, and to find myself again, but with the help of a number of friends, I made it through. The wounds are still healing, and for now I need my space, but I honestly wish you well.

Everyone asks if I saw you one last time, and sometimes I think it’s a shame I didn’t. I heard they sent you up to pathology, where you were a bit of a rock star. I know I would’ve been proud.

XOXO,

J. Ryan


It starts with a birth and finishes with a death. That’s the usual way, the only way, really. And for my mother, Bonnie Gandstetter, it was almost a short story—a life six-weeks long, coming to a near-end in a snow shower outside a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania.

My grandmother, Billie, was twenty when Bonnie was born. Bonnie was a fine baby: round head, wide green eyes, an inscrutable gaze. She was content to loll on the braided rug with the dogs, two liver-colored pointers who would lick the dried formula off her face. Sometimes she’d give a whistling holler and whir her arms and legs like rotors. The dogs watched her tiny limbs as if they were humming birds, and often Billie wondered how many minutes she’d have to leave the room before a dog snatched one of those humming birds in his mouth.

The rule in the house was that you don’t pick up a kid and cuddle it. If it cries, you let it cry. You feed it one bottle every four hours for six weeks, at which point you drop the night feedings. Never kiss the child and never talk to it in anything other than a voice as flat and firm as a sheet of aluminum. The last thing Billie had wanted was a spoiled child. And the last thing my grandfather, Otto, had wanted was a child who was not a boy.

Otto had little use for girls and women, although he had always been fond of Billie who was female but not frilly in any way. Billie wore slacks at a time most women were in dresses. She had a delicate, simple face, but her backbone was as rigid as her temperament. My grandfather liked to say that Billie was as unbreakable as an iron rod.

A month and a half after my mother was born, while Billie was still recovering from the delivery, Otto decided that he and Billie needed to go out for a drink. Instead of taking the truck, Otto took the convertible Buick Century with the top folded down like a giant accordion into the nook behind the opera seat. It was cold out, about forty degrees, with a sky as clear as glass. Otto had read the almanac that morning—it was sitting next to the toilet where Billie had left it for him—and it said there’d be no more snow in Pennsylvania until next December. Otto, like most people, considered the almanac a solid prophecy of the weather, certainly more reliable than the old Pennsylvania Dutch women who thought they could tell you anything by simply scraping their claws along the bark of an elm.

Otto placed baby Bonnie, nestled in her white wicker basinet, on the opera seat of the Buick. Billie told me that she remembers looking down at Bonnie for a second, noting with distaste the way she pursed her lips as if she’d just bitten into a lemon. Then she sat in the front seat without glancing back again.

Otto stood outside the car, his head tilted as he looked at the baby.

“I’ll tell ya Billie,” Otto said, and he laughed at what he was about to say. “If I hadn’t seen you change a diaper, I’d swear this was a boy, ‘cause this is one goddamn ugly little thing!” He tugged down the pink patchwork quilt that covered his daughter and examined her. Bonnie was bound so tightly in her receiving blanket that she resembled a cocoon with a face. Otto pulled the quilt back over Bonnie, up to her chin, then patted the blue crochet cap on her head that Billie had made when she was pregnant.

“Well let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she needs to get married,” Billie said.

“Let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she starts talking to me!” Otto swung open the giant, wide door and got into the car. He listened to the thrum of the engine for a moment before he shifted into first gear and, releasing the clutch smartly, pulled away from the curb.

As they cruised down the nearly empty road, Billie looked out at the bare trees, the dirt-brown grass in the fields between houses, the bald smudge of sun lowering on the horizon. I imagine she pulled her silk scarf tight around her neck then tucked the tail into the front of her blue wool coat. The wind had a bite in it sharp as a thistle, but Billie knew better than to ask that Otto put the top up on the car. Otto always said, if he had wanted to ride around with a roof over his head he wouldn’t have bought the damn thing.

About twenty minutes later Otto pulled into the parking lot of Buck’s Inn. He and Billie hadn’t been there since Bonnie was born as Billie hadn’t been up to going out and Otto, when he left the house without Billie, always met up with his five brothers who liked to drink at the local Redding bar. As usual, Otto parked the car away from the other vehicles whose owners might ding the sides of the burgundy Buick while drunkenly opening their doors. When he got out of the car, he stretched and surveyed his surroundings as if it were all his. And in a way it was all his. Otto owned a beer distributing business, shipping beer from Maine to the Mississippi river (with a stop at Buck’s Inn along the way). He was one of the richest men in town, a fact he never had to prove, as Reading, back in 1939 was a relatively small town.

Billie got out of the Buick without waiting for her husband to open the door for her; she walked across the dirt and gravel parking lot toward the inn. Otto paused, glanced at the baby in her basinet then looked up at the sky that had turned the color of a fresh bruise. He decided that Bonnie would be fine, wound in her blanket like a spool of thread, under the patchwork quilt and the scrappy red maple that bowed toward the car. Billie was waiting for him at the open door of Buck’s Inn—he jogged to catch up to her.

“You had that baby now, didn’t ya?” Roy asked, when Billie and Otto walked in. He was the bartender, a big man with a nose as red and round as a cherry tomato.

“Yup,” Billie said, settling onto a wooden stool. “A girl.”

“What’d’ya name her?”

“Bonnie,” Billie said, peering behind Roy to see what kinds of liquor he had lined up back there.

“She’s an ugly thing!” Otto shouted, as he sat beside his wife. Roy and the few other men hunched on their barstools let out bold, honking laughs.

“Well here’s to your ugly little girl!” Tom Kunkle said, lifting his mug. He was at the end of the bar, but everyone was talking loudly enough for the whole, small, murky room to hear.

It was dinnertime but neither Billie nor Otto was hungry. They were drinking scotch and when that got too heavy for Billie she changed over to scotch with a bit of milk in it. Roy put out a jar of six pickled eggs. They ate them all without thinking, tasting, or even taking note that they were actually eating. When Roy didn’t refill the jar, neither Billie nor Otto asked for more.

At ten p.m., a few more people stumbled into the bar, men who had been drinking at Earl’s down the street. Earl closed his doors early, his wife liked him in bed with her, he told his customers, and this fact made her seem sexy to everyone in town. Billie looked at Otto, her head wobbling the way Bonnie’s did when Billie picked her up.

“I think six weeks without a drink has made me a little intolerant,” Billie said.

“You suddenly getting light-weight on me?” Otto said. He rarely asked a question with the intention of getting an answer.

“Maybe we should take a room and let me sleep this off,” Billie said, and she wobbled off her stool and staggered toward the stairs leading up to the hotel guest quarters.

“Roy!” Otto shouted. “Do you have a spare room?”

Roy was wiping clean the glasses that were stacked beside the sink. He reached for a key hanging on a board of hooks above the cash register.

“Number seven,” Roy said, tossing the key over the bar to Otto. “If Mary wakes you up in the morning, just tell her Roy said you can sleep in as long as you’d like.”

“Put the room on my tab,” Otto said, and he staggered up the stairs behind his wife.

My grandmother told me that the next morning when she woke up, she sat up straight and looked toward the window that was like a sheet of glaring white light. She gasped as if she’d just received a blow to the stomach, then choked for a second. It felt like something might actually come up.

“Otto.” She would have yelled but there wasn’t breath enough in her to do so. Billie pushed my grandfather on the chest, then staggered out of bed. She hopped on one leg as she tried to pull up her slacks with quaking arms.

My grandfather woke up. Looked at my grandmother. Her eyes were wild, her movements exaggeratedly spastic.

“JESUS CHRIST!” he said, and he flung the covers back, got out of bed and had his khakis on before Billie had finished shoving her bra and underpants into her black clasped handbag. They stumbled down the stairs together, Otto buttoning his flannel shirt, Billie struggling into her blue wool coat. The bar was empty, and the unlocked front door easily pushed open as they ran out.

The sun was so bright it was like a spotlight on their faces. And yet, it was snowing. A faint, powder-dry mist seemed to fall in slow motion, as my grandparents raced across the snowy gravel.

“Godammit!” Otto said, when he approached the car. He looked back and forth between the baby, whose face looked like a frosted glass plum, and the creamy leather seats now sparkling with white dust.

Billie made a sound like a rabbit’s guttural squeal as she pulled Bonnie from the basinet and tried to warm her against her chest under her wool coat. It was an impulse propelled by instinct, Billie told me, she couldn’t have reacted differently.

“Hurry up now,” she said, to Otto, as he took a few seconds to wipe the snow off the seats before starting the car. Billie could feel Bonnie’s lungs beating open and shut like flapping wings. The child was as silent as the sky.

They drove straight to Reading General Hospital, the wind and snow biting Billie’s face as she hunched over the baby against her breast. Again, Otto parked the car a good distance from any neighboring vehicles.

“Stay here, clean the seats and put the roof up,” Otto said. He took the baby from Billie’s arms, tossing away the snow-dappled quilt, then trotted into the hospital and up to the third floor where Bonnie had been born.

“My wife went to check on the baby,” Otto said, as he handed off Bonnie to a plump, red-cheeked nurse, “and found her like this.” Otto swore to me that he remembers every detail of these moments, even that the nurse wore clip-on gold earring that seemed much too fancy for a hospital.

The nurse put the back of her fleshy hand against Bonnie’s cold, purple cheek, gasped and rushed the baby away.

A few minutes later Dr. Whiteford came out to waiting room to talk to Otto. He was a few years older than Otto, but deferred to him out of the simple fact that his father, brother and aunt all worked for Gandstetter Beer Distributing. Otto and the doctor sat side by side on thick, wide wooden chairs.

“Were the windows open in the room?” the doctor asked, and he looked down at Otto’s knees.

“Probably,” Otto said. “Fresh air is good for them.”

“Crib right next to the window?”

“I don’t know,” Otto said, impatiently. And he tried to picture where her crib was in the room, as if the story were true.

“She must have kicked her blankets off,” the doctor said. “It was just like she was sleeping outdoors.”

“Is she dead?” Otto asked, and there was a thump in his belly as if someone had a hammer in there. He had never thought much about Bonnie and wasn’t surprised that he’d slept through the night without remembering that she was in the car. And Billie, well, give the woman a few drinks and she’d forget her own name. But whatever he felt about the child, he surely didn’t want her to die–not like this, at least; not because they’d had more than triple their share at Buck’s.

“She’s not deceased yet,” the doctor said, and he dropped his head as if he were repenting.

“Thing was as blue as a punched eye,” Otto said. “Never seen anything like that.” The hammer in his gut thumped two more times. If he had been alone he would have hunched over with the spasms.

“No, it’s not something you see very often.” Dr. Whiteford glanced at Otto.

“So how are you going to fix her?” Otto’s eyes were like darts.

“Well, she’s breathing, and her heart is beating, but her lungs are filled with fluid—the cold air, and she’s got a fever that would have killed a grown man already.”

“How could she be freezing and have a fever at the same time?” Otto scratched the back of his neck, squinting at the doctor.

“Her temperature was too low when you brought her in, but as she warmed up, her fever spiked—trying to kill the infection in her lungs.”

“Jesus Christ,” Otto moaned, “first she’s too cold, now she’s too hot. What am I going to tell her mother?”

“I’ve got a friend in Philadelphia and he’s sending over some penicillin.”

“Penicillin,” Otto repeated. He had never heard of it. Few people had heard of it. The drug had only
recently been developed and what little there was, was being stockpiled by the government in case the U.S. was to become part of the war overseas. Dr. Whiteford didn’t know if this new drug could be used on an infant or not—he wasn’t even sure if it could be used on an adult without killing him. But since the baby seemed as close to soulless as you can be while still breathing, there was little to lose.

“I’ve never given it to anyone before,” Dr. Whiteford said. “We might as well try.” The doctor stood and stuck out his hand for Otto to shake. My grandfather looked down at the hand and wished there were a scotch in there for him.

Note to the reader: I lived in New Orleans from 2001-2005. For the last six months of this period I held a position both on the security team and as an ER intake/administrator at the Oschner hospital, the largest medical facility in Orleans Parish and one of only two to remain open in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. As a member of the Disaster Relief Staff I remained within the city for the storm and the first few weeks of the aftermath. The following document is a collection of the emails I mass-sent to friends and family during that time. I have edited out some bits of personal information of no interest to the casual reader and have made some minor corrections to the spelling, but have otherwise left the text unchanged, grammatical warts and all, so as to preserve the immediacy in which these were originally written. Some of the second-hand information reported herein was later proven to be hearsay, and some of it turned out to be worse than originally thought. I was very torn as to whether I should publish this at all, and am doing so largely due to the encouragement of some friends and fellow TNBers.

The paragraph titles are taken from the subject lines of the original emails.

Hurricane 8/28/2005

There’s a Category Five hurricane barreling down on New Orleans right now, the biggest in the history of the state according to some of the news anchors. The Mayor has issued a mandatory evacuation alert, coupled with Sheriff Harry Lee announcing, “If you stay, you’re a damn fool,” at a press conference this morning. My girlfriend is evacuating to her parents’ home in Mississippi. I’m a damn fool, and am going to remain in the city. The security department has been deemed “essential emergency staff” at the hospital, although in what capacity we can be helpful I do not really know. It’s a fairly new building and up to code as far as structure is concerned, so I should be safe enough, and if anything happens I’ll be able to get treatment right away. Just hope my apartment survives all right.

Approaching the Hour 8/29/2005

Half past midnight and a glance at the sky outside of the Emergency Room makes me feel like I’m in an H.P. Lovecraft story. The night overhead is an inky expanse ribbonned with gray streaks, and it moves and undulates in a seething mass, as though heralding the rise of something ancient from the depths of a brutal and uncaring sea. The whistling of the wind is painful on the ear. Out on the street I can see stop signs bending to forty-five degree angles, and I foresee them becoming deadly projectiles before this thing is done.

We have a skeleton staff on hand here. Everyone is nervy, on edge and afraid, and drinking more caffeine than is probably healthy.

It’s going to be a long night.

The Hammer Falls 8/29/2005

I don’t know what time it is. Hurricane Katrina is beating us senseless. The wind battering against the glass is choking with water. Unidentifiable pieces of debris can be glimpsed hurtling through the air. Parts of the hospital shake like we’re in an earthquake. Staff, patients and their families are huddling down in corridors, exam rooms and waiting rooms, away from any exposed windows. No matter where you wander, you can hear the desperate sobs riding just underneath the barbaric winds.

At some point in the last hour we lost main power, and are currently on the reserve generator. Enough to keep the critical care machinery functioning, provide some lighting and power to the computer terminals, but that’s it. We are currently without television, radio, or telephones. The plumbing has stopped working entirely, and the hallways near the restrooms are thick with the odor of human waste.

I’m off shift right now, and need to find a safe spot to take a nap—I’ve been awake since this time yesterday.

Aftermath 8/29/05

It’s about 3:30 PM right now. The worst of the storm seems to have passed, and by the looks of it beat the living daylights out of the hospital front—there’s broken glass, metal debris, and stripped siding from the buildings lying everywhere. Although we didn’t flood, places throughout the facility sprung leaks in the ceiling, and we had to seal off portions of the campus. We’re still without main power and running water. Without air conditioning the hospital is growing uncomfortably warm.

A few police officers have stopped by to check in. They report that downtown took it very hard; apparently the glass windows on the Hyatt-Regent blew out. My neighborhood is said to have fared better, so there’s a chance I might actually have a home to go back to tomorrow.

My cellular network is either damaged or overloaded; I get a busy signal every time I try to call someone.

In a very surreal turn of events, as Katrina raged outside, I found myself catching a few hour’s sleep in an OB/GYN exam room.

On the exam bed.

Hot 8/30/2005

I won’t be going home anytime soon. The lake, pregnant with runoff from Katrina, has ruptured through the 17th Street levee, spilling water into the city. Levels are rising right now, and movement within the city is completely cut off. The hospital seems be staying dry, but that could change very soon.

Temperatures rose sharply, and everyone inside is miserable. The emergency generators are unable to power the AC without cutting out the support systems for the patients in the Intensive Care Unit, and the nurses and doctors are walking around in cutoff scrubs and tank tops. Those of us on the security detail have been instructed to remain in full uniform, and I am developing a heat rash in some very uncomfortable places. Bottled drinking water is in urgent demand.

The psychiatric ward on the seventh floor is having extreme problems. The doctors have been upping the patients’ levels of Thorazine since before the hurricane hit, but the rising temperatures aren’t helping. We’ve had three calls up there in the first half-hour of my shift. I’ve had four other cases of internal violence since then, largely do to a potent combination of heat and fear.

I still can’t make any calls on my cell phone, but I was able to swap text messages with my girlfriend. She and her family survived all right but the house, like my hospital, is without power or water, and they are leaving for her aunt’s house in Roanoke.

We have running water, although it’s unsafe to drink. The toilets work, at least, and we can take cold showers.

There are rumors that looting has begun downtown. Everyone on my team has been issued a sidearm.

I’m not sleeping well.

Camped Out 8/31/2005

My cellular network has completely crashed. Although the hospital is still running on emergency power, we’ve managed to safely restore AC to much of the building, and even have hot running water in a few places. My understanding is that we are the only functional medical facility within the metropolitan area.

The restoration of AC is crucial. It’s been so hot over the last three days that people’s tempers have been flaring up all over the place, and my crew and I have had a great deal of peacekeeping to do throughout the hospital. Stress and anxiety aren’t helping, either, and on the average most people are getting four hours of sleep out of every twenty-four. Last night one of my friends in the ER had to give me an IV of fluids to combat dehydration.

The Salvation Army is here, handing food and blankets. A local grocery store has a distribution warehouse across the street, and has given us permission to raid it as we need, which earlier today our Shipping and Receiving department did, accompanied by several police officers; their efforts have provided us with a stockpile of canned food and dry cereal.

People are kind of on the barter system at the moment, trading what they have for what they need: a can of peaches for a change of scrubs, a tube of toothpaste for a pair of clean underwear. I traded off my last extra razor to an ER nurse in exchange for showering privileges.

There have been several shootings in and around town. Two individuals assaulted a police station with AK-47s, and there are reports that medivac helicopters and ambulances are being fired upon. Looters are turning on each other, and some of the bodies floating around downtown aren’t drowning victims. Other hospitals have been raided, or are taking on water, and we’re doing what we can to get their patients here safely. The shock of moving has been more than some of them could handle.

Last word that reached my ears is that my neighborhood stayed fairly dry, even with the resultant flood from the levee breaking. Flooding has stabilized, not really increasing, not really draining. My car was left in a different area of town before the storm, and is now most likely underwater.

We have as yet received no aid outside of local law enforcement, and they are stretched thin enough as it is. Martial law and a strict curfew have been imposed.

I’m doing a little better. Last night I found an abandoned conference room to camp out in, and in my off hours hole up in there to read and write by flashlight. Given that I’m using my Swiss Army knife to open and consume all of my canned meals—Campbell’s Spaghetti, Del Monte Pears and SPAM—it’s a lot like Boy Scout camp.

Except without the fun.

I’m currently on my last set of clean clothes, but there’s talk that the hospital laundry may be functional again later today, so we might be able to get some stuff washed. The Mayor’s office is going to allow us to return to our homes on Monday, and if I can I’ll grab some more clothes. As far as civvies go I only have three tee shirts and a pair of jeans, and right now the pants can walk around without me.

Gunshots 9/1/2005

Occasionally you can hear the pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons firing in the neighborhood around the hospital. There’s no way to judge the distance; there is absolutely no vehicular traffic and no noise pollution, so the shots could be carrying for miles.

Gradually, and then in increasing numbers, people are trying to get into the hospital. The day after the storm we sealed ourselves off to everyone but incoming emergency care patients, and everyone who is allowed in must be searched for weapons. Although no one has been armed, people are getting aggressive in their attempts for access, including faking ailments as severe as heart attacks right outside our door. Although I don’t feel good about turning them away, the sad truth is if we threw our doors open we’d be flooded with uncontrollable numbers of people, placing the staff and the patients that actually need care at risk.

Still no TV or radio, although the cell phones are sporadically working again, and the Internet remains functional. The news websites claim that federal aid is coming, and we’re supposed to get some National Guardsmen here later.

The news also reports that people trapped downtown are beginning to die. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but I don’t really doubt it.

Lull 9/2/2005

A strange quiet has descended tonight. After all the chaos of the last few days the lull is surreal. I can’t help thinking it’s the stillness of the sheathed knife, of violence and danger waiting to be. Between the anarchy in the streets and the ever-growing cabin fever of the people trapped in here, it’s only a matter of time before something brutal and nasty happens. I hope desperately that it won’t, as there are enough injured and suffering people, and such behavior will only make it worse, but all of my training and experience tells me it will. Still, I’ll try and enjoy it while it lasts.

Curfew is lifted during the day. I’m going to try and make it back to my apartment when this shift is over.

The Knife in Motion 9/2/2005

A huge explosion just erupted downtown, powerful enough to be seen and heard from my post outside the ER, ten miles away. It lit up the night like a flashbulb, and the afterglow is still visible against the sky. Preliminary reports from the police stationed with us place it somewhere in the vicinity of the French Quarter, possibly at a chemical storage facility. Could be arson or just some idiot breaking into the wrong place and lighting a cigarette. I can’t tell yet if it started a fire. Although without functional water in the city, how would the fire crews fight it? Is the Fire Department still functional?

I realized a few minutes before the explosion that I can’t remember what it feels like to sleep in my own bed. Or any other.

Fun With Herpetology 9/4/2005

It’s been a long and weary twenty-four hours. I have successfully conducted a commando raid of my own home, bypassing looters, wreckage and miscreant reptiles. My will is a thing unto iron and my kung fu strong.

After the night of the explosion (Friday morning I think, it’s been getting hard to tell) one of my coworkers volunteered the use of his car so I could conduct an inspection of my apartment. What is normally a ten-minute drive took the better part of an hour. I was initially stopped at a sheriff’s checkpoint by six deputies wearing flak jackets and armed with AK-47s and riot shotguns; they kept their weapons trained on my vehicle until I identified myself as a member of the hospital stafff, at which point they let me pass.

Katrina turned my neighborhood into a Mesozoic wasteland, the uprooted and shattered oak and cypress trees forming a dense maze; in some places the rubble was so thick I couldn’t see the houses beyond. Coupled with the downed power lines, it was difficult terrain to navigate in the car. I passed a looted Rite-Aid on Oak Street. Someone had found a forklift and used it to smash open the rolldown security gate.

Worse, the earlier reports weren’t accurate. There was flooding in much of the neighborhood. From Oak south to St. Charles was dry, but north towards South Claiborne was a different story. I had to park the car and slog through five blocks of thigh-high nasty water the rest of the trip. I had a PR24 riot baton ready in case of itinerant looters (I am by law not allowed to take a firearm off hospital property). Stray cats roamed everywhere around, some of them following me at a discreet distance with expectant looks on their faces, and I had the creepy thought they were waiting for something tragic and fatal to happen to me so they’d have something to eat. The water was brown and shockingly cold, and covered in a slick oily sheen.

Here’s where the narrative gets strange. This may be the most truly surreal thing that has ever happened to me, and I wish to all hell I was making it up.

About halfway there, around the intersection of Plum and Burdette streets, I was attacked by an alligator.

Yes, that’s right. Go ahead and read it again. A fucking alligator.

I didn’t believe it either.

I was walking down the center of the street, as it was the highest point, although by no means easy going; the street underwater was littered with branches and God only knows what else, not to mention the ever-present New Orleans potholes. I kept having to go over or around fallen logs or power lines, and while doing so my foot went down in one of those unseen holes. I stumbled, reflexively reaching out for something to steady myself with, and that’s when the little bastard bit me. I guess he was lying in the water around the branches or something, and I spooked him. I didn’t even know what it was, just that something latched onto my forearm. I pulled free and finally saw him—pretty small, really, about two feet long or so, the size of a well-loved iguana. Looking at the wound, I’d guess his mouth was just big enough to fit around my arm but not bite down, which is why he didn’t do much other than scratch me.

He came at me again, and that’s when I hit him; the PR24 was caught in my belt on my left-had side, so I used my fist, landing an underhand strike that knocked him back in the direction I came. Normally the environmentalist in me would shriek at the thought of treating an endangered species that way, but it’s a different matter when said endangered species is treating you like so much beef jerky. He plopped in the water and didn’t come back up.

Several of my coworkers have chastised me for not finishing the job and bringing the carcass back so they could eat him in turn.

I made it to my apartment without further incident. The house had lost its rain gutter and there were shingles lying all over the place, but aside from one broken window where someone had tried to break in it appeared unmolested. Nothing inside was missing, but the house stank of rotten food. The basement in the building’s lower half was filled with water. I cleaned the fridge out as best I could and gathered the personal items I’d come for.

Items rescued included: all relevant computer disks containing my own writing projects; birth certificate; the entire contents of my sock-and-underwear drawer; changes of clothing, including clean uniforms; all remaining canned food in the pantry. All of this weighed about seventy pounds, strapped onto my body in a backpack and two duffle bags. Walking back took twice as long as getting there did, and by the time I finally made it back to the hospital (unmolested this time by either man or animal) I smelled like a bilge rat. I stashed my bags in my campsite and went to the ER for treatment of the bite. They cleaned it and gave me several antibiotic injections. I fell asleep with four hours to rest before my next shift started.

Since then it’s been nonstop. New Orleans is burning along the Riverfront and French Quarter, and the police are actively exchanging gunshots with looters on the street. The wounded are coming here, as well as the evacuees that are too ill to make it to Texas without treatment. We’re doing our best to keep them safe and get everything staged for their departure. Last night a medivac chopper rescued a pregnant woman who had gone into labor while trapped in a water-filled attic; she was actively giving birth as we sped her stretcher through the hospital up to Labor and Delivery.

I volunteered to spend the first part of today helping the rescue teams crate up the bodies of the deceased. In my first two months on this job I saw more dead bodies than ever before in my life; in one day I saw more than triple that number. My body right now feels like a wad of Silly Putty slapped hard up against a wall and left there.

Spirits are starting to lag all around, including mine. We now have main power back online, but stir craziness is getting bad, especially after the 11:00 PM curfew, when the dyed-in-the-wool smokers get profoundly hostile about not being allowed out for their fix. I need rest, mostly, a little time to read a book or write a bit—free time seems to be trickling away faster and faster. I miss my girlfriend terribly.

Two NOPD officers shot themselves today.

I’m going to shower and go to bed now. My brain has the shape, texture, and cognitive ability of day-old oatmeal.

I need a cold beer. Someone out there drink one for me.

Fresh 9/05/2005

Funny. As of today it’s been only a week since this whole business began, and it feels like a lifetime. Strange how acclimated I’ve gotten to this routine. Everything else in the world seems like so much distant history. The hospital is an island, floating in a stream of chaos. We have main power; the rest of the city is using candles. While our running water is by no means clean, it comes from a well instead of the contaminated reservoir, and is as good for flushing a toilet as anything else. We have bottled drinking water and have canned food, hot showers and clean clothes. Everyone still left in the city has none of those things. They have violence, despair, illness and misery.

My department had a meeting last night, voicing complaints and concerns to our immediate supervisors. It was largely a bitch session, and some tempers erupted, but the end result is that this evening my bosses rolled a big cart loaded with fresh apples, oranges and bananas into our operations center. After a week of canned  meat, powdered milk and over-boiled pasta, I can honestly say that nothing on Earth tastes so splendid as a ripe fist-sized navel orange, rivulets of juice running helter-skelter like children on a playground.

Tomorrow is the day that the city government is supposed to allow us to return to our homes. I am utterly tempted to take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge and hop a plane for California.

I’m not going to, though.

I got off easy; about half my team lost their homes and only has the clothes on their backs, and they need this time to start getting their lives back in order. My apartment might be inaccessible, but it’s still there, most of my things undamaged. Any time I take off robs them of what they need. I want to be with my girlfriend, but I’m okay and she’s okay, and so many of my crew aren’t. With luck I’ll have a week or so later on in the month to start putting my ducks in a row, but right now it’s imperative that others do so first.

Shift change, so I must go.

Sleep 9/06/2005

So after being diagnosed with Exhaustion, not to mention the head cold that’s making the rounds in here, I was prescribed sleeping pills and given a night off. At best I’ve been sleeping about five hours a night since this thing started, and that’s usually been broken, as I wake up every forty-five minutes or so. If I dream, I don’t remember, which is probably a good thing.

I took my pill, laid down in my little campsite, and proceeded to sleep for about twelve hours. The fatigue headache I’ve been carrying around seems to have disappeared, or at least taken a break, and my hands have lost the tremble that started sometime on Sunday. Still, I can’t wait to sleep in an actual bed and eat something that doesn’t come out of a can.

Apparently I got lucky in my exposure to the floodwater. People who have been stuck down in the 9th Ward and other flooded areas are being treated here for lesions and massive skin rashes due to the contamination in the water. We continue to be a staging area for the dead to be shipped off elsewhere for identification and inspection. The effect being in the water has had on some of the dead I won’t try and put into words right now—suffice to say it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. And there have been a lot of those in the last nine days, so it’ll be a while before I figure out what tops that list.

Spirits are dropping hard around here. People are tired, worried about their homes and loved ones. New Orleans proper is still officially sealed off for entrance, so a lot of employees haven’t even seen how their homes fared through Katrina. Even with the arrival of relief from Baton Rouge and FEMA (who showed up here last night—finally) there hasn’t been much of an upswell in mood. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that we’ve endured a massive traumatic experience, which I hadn’t considered before. I’m no psychiatrist but I guess it’s fair to say that we’re seeing some signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome; it explains why those cops swallowed bullets a few days ago. It also explains why some yahoos are refusing to leave their flooded homes even as the rescue boats come by. The last time we talked, Tristyn asked why I’m keeping it together when she’s going to pieces.

I don’t know. I’m so damned weary, even beyond what sleep and medication can cure. There are people here that have the skills and training to save lives, but in the meantime they need protection and safety, both from the looters and elements and their own collapsing morale. I can do that, or at least try. I wish I had more medical training, gotten certification as an EMT or something. I wish I’d fled, even though I know I’d stay if it happened again.

But when all is said and done, I’m going to have a nice big cathartic freak-out.

Swamp Thing 9/12/2005

So in the wake of Katrina the city of New Orleans has effectively turned into a toxic waste dump. The Garden District periodically bursts into flames that can’t be put out, as there is no functioning fire brigade. The U.S. Army controls the streets now (and I never thought I’d be happy for the day when the military forcibly seizes control of an American city) but really, what is left to control? The broken, ruined shell of a city, saturated with water carrying disease, the week-old bodies of the dead and gallon after gallon of raw sewage. The water is now so toxic that even touching it has been deemed highly hazardous. Plus, there’s so much oil coating it, and so many exposed gas mains and downed power lines that every single fire that starts could cause what’s left of the city to go up like a Roman candle.

It’s starting to go back to the animals, too. The police officers coming in for treatment over the last couple of days have been reporting some strange things. Water moccasins slither on their merry way down the streets; several of the search-and-rescue boats have had to abandon bodies because displaced alligators are snacking on them, and the teams can’t drive off the reptiles without endangering themselves. And when the levees broke, the floodwaters washed several bull sharks into the waterlogged streets. A Jefferson Parish Levee Board officer used his cell phone to snap a picture of a four-foot shark happily cruising the I-10 service road.

(Bull sharks, for those who don’t know, are one of the most dangerous breeds of shark. They attack quickly, ferociously, and indiscriminately, and there are records of them bashing through canoes. They’re all the more dangerous because they can survive in both salt and fresh water, and have been documented as far up the Mississippi River as Indiana. Large numbers have lived in Lake Pontchartrain for some time.)

Several months ago at least forty manatees were spotted in the lake. They’re delicate, slow moving and slow to reproduce species, which is also highly endangered. In what you could call a tragic caveat to the misery Katrina has caused, the pumping of all this toxic sludge back into the lake is almost certainly going to endanger their lives—and there isn’t much the EPA or WWF can do about it. Like a rapist, Katrina continues to leave scars long after the deed is done.

Getting slowly ready to depart. I’d like to remain down here for another week or so, just to get one last complete pay period done, especially since FEMA is dragging its feet on actually getting financial assistance to those of us still stuck down here. I lost my car, I no longer have a home I can live in, I am displaced—where’s my $2000 debit card? I still have to get a plane ticket to Roanoke and enough gas to drive from there to my family in San Diego, not to mention food and lodging along the way.

Seriously, every single FEMA employee I’ve talked to in the last twenty-four hours gives me the dull-eyed look of a freshly milked cow when I ask them where I can obtain pocket money for travel and shelter expenses.

Does anyone else think the federal government’s handling of this mess has effectively guaranteed we’re going to have a Democratic president in the next election?

Out 9/18/2005

I sat on top of the hospital’s raised parking garage last night and watched some of the fires that continue to flare up downtown, although less severely than they did before. Sadly, this may be because there isn’t much dry material left to burn. Occasionally something ignited a patch of leaking gas, leaving a bright orange flower against the horizon. It looked like nothing so much as the opening of Blade Runner.

This morning brought the restoration of cable to the facility, so we could all turn on the TV monitors and see footage of what we’ve been dealing with the last couple of weeks. The political sturm and drang is just going to get worse, I fear. As a final example of FEMA ineptitude, I submit the following piece of information: they have yet to get a single representative down here to deal with aid and recovery matters for the citizens who could not flee or be evacuated. All we have are FEMA medical personnel giving out free inoculations. Which means that we are forced to rely on what money we have in our pockets to get around on. There are currently no functional banks or ATMs anywhere in the area. As an added surprise, the hospital screwed up payroll, so those of us who worked will have to wait an additional two weeks for any sort of compensation.

Figures.

With the cheerful assistance of a nursing student I made it back to my apartment today. The water had receded from my neighborhood, leaving the earth, houses and concrete a dead gray color. In Jefferson Parish you can smell the sewage, rot, gas, garbage and other effluvium that make up the floodwaters. The smell turned into a stench as we got into my neighborhood, despite the lack of water, and I can only guess how awful it is downtown. I was able to put some more of Tristyn’s and my things in our only suitcase, but everything else will have to remain for the time being. A horrible mildew smell came from the basement when I opened the door, and fear of toxic mold kept me from going down there. We’ve already had a few cases of spore inhalation in the ER in the last two days. Phone and power were still out, and when I tried the tap something that looked and smelled like raw sewage came out.

The EPA has advised that the water contains high levels of lead and E.coli, which means that the city will be infectious and toxic even after the water is finally pumped out. Buildings will have to be razed or decontaminated before anyone can live in them, and it’ll be months before there is water or electricity available. Underground sewage mains have ruptured, many in places where crews will have to cut through large blocks of the street to get at them.

The hospital has brought in a large portion of its staff, and many closed areas of the facility that needed repairs are getting ready to reopen. We are crawling with the National Guard, many of them from Puerto Rico, a place that is not even granted the privilege of statehood yet we can recruit them into our armed forces—someone explain that to me. The facility is safe, secure, and nearly fully staffed.

My small part seems to be over. Tomorrow I take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge where, thanks to an old friend, I have a plane ticket waiting to take me to Tristyn in Roanoke. After a week or so to recover and plan our next steps we’ll be driving cross-country to California to start rebuilding our life, a trip that I pray will be less eventful than these last two weeks. If there’s a word to describe the marrow-deep fatigue I feel right now, I don’t know what it is.

This will be the last dispatch.

I’m getting out.