A Muslim Doctor in Louisiana
By Dr. Ameena Taj Ahmed
Medical Director
Survivors International
San Francisco

Dr. Ameena Taj Ahmed from Berkeley, CA and Dr. Eric Peterson, a pediatrician from Iowa, at the Lamar Dixon shelter in Gonzales, LA

I'm back in Berkeley after a week of serving the victims of Katrina in Louisiana as a volunteer doctor. I met people who had lost all their possessions save for the clothes on their backs; people who didn't know if they still had any family; people whose newborn babies had been hospitalized when the storm hit and who still don’t know if their children had survived, and if so, where they were. And I met an incredible group of doctors and nurses who had left behind husbands, wives, children, and their medical practices to volunteer to help, out of the goodness of their hearts.
People displaced by Katrina were everywhere. Every church I went to housed people. In Walker, a town of 5000, I went to two churches. One of them housed 40 people. Their bedding was spread across pews, in the church offices; everywhere there was space on the floor or on a couch. The pastor of that church, I was told later, hadn’t planned on housing displaced people. But he awoke the day after the storm to find people sleeping in their cars in the parking lot and took them in. Volunteers were busy completing a small building on the church ground to hold the clothing, toiletries, books, and toys that the congregation had donated.

September 7
I spent 12 hours working in the Lamar Dixon shelter in Gonzales, Louisiana. I walked out of the warm Louisiana morning into the shelter at 7am. The overhead lights were still dimmed, and only a few people stirred as rays of sun shone through the row of windows high up on one wall. I felt like I was waking into someone’s bedroom unannounced. Red Cross volunteers had mapped

out the large room into some 20 sections. The room was freezing, and people were buried under piles of donated blankets and quilts. Apparently the Expo Center’s air conditioning had two settings, on and off. It was hardly set up to be living space. The Lamar Dixon Expo Center is normally used for trade shows, large parties, and as fairgrounds. Eleven days prior, it had been set up as a Red Cross shelter to house 1500 evacuees from the New Orleans area through the hurricane. It had since become the only home many of those people had. When I was there, it was operating over its capacity at about 1700 people. How did someone determine, I wondered, how many people could sleep under the same roof and share the same bank of porto-potties?

September 8
On Thursday afternoon I headed out to a Best Western motel on Hwy 70 in Donaldsonville, at the end of the Sunshine Bridge, with Dr. Rich and Nurse Dian. Dian, a native of the area, drove us 20 minutes past Gonzales, through sugar cane fields and the occasional house. Once we reached the hotel, Rich went door-to-door to look for people who needed our help while I started seeing people in an impromptu office in the breakfast room. We saw 31 people in two hours. Some of them came to have their blood pressure checked or their lungs listened to. More came to tell their stories. We were the first people to visit those people. “Who are you with—the Red Cross?” we were repeatedly asked. We told them we were there as two independent physicians and a nurse to do what we could.

One woman in her early 50’s brought her elderly mother. The daughter was attractive, well-dressed, and articulate. She told me that normally, she hired a sitter to care for her mother. Her mother had dementia, and her confusion and nightly wandering had gotten worse since they had been staying in the hotel. The daughter had been “sleeping with one eye open” the past 10 days, and she was worried about her mother. I talked to her about sundowning and explained that her mother was not suddenly getting more demented, as the daughter feared, and I wrote a prescription for low-dose Risperdal. An hour later the daughter returned by herself. She was terribly stressed, she explained, and had not been sleeping well at all. She had always been a strong woman and had always been in control of herself and taken care of her family. Now she felt simply overwhelmed. Few had clear plans of what they would do.

After we had finished seeing all the people who wanted to see us and we were packing up our bags, one of the women who had brought her mother to us for evaluation walked back into the room and sat down on a chair and just began to talk. Her mother had lived in the same house, she told us, since before she was born. “My mama brought me home to that house, and I’ve brought my daughter up in that house. I’m 36 years old. I’ve never before asked for help from anyone. I worked in the Coca Cola plant, but now I don’t have a job no more. I went to the plant in ___ but they don’t have the machine there that I know how to work. I have never been on food stamps, I’ve supported myself and my mama and my daughter, and now I need help and FEMA hasn’t helped and no one has come here to do anything.” One of the woman’s friends started to cry silently. “I thought I packed my cell phone in my bag when we left, but I didn’t, and all my family’s numbers were in there. I don’t know how to reach them, and they don’t know we’re alive. I never before lost my faith in God.”

As we left, I went over and gave the woman a hug and whispered to her, “God does these things to test us,” but I don’t know if my words were at all comforting. I didn’t know what else to say to her.

As we were operating our impromptu clinic in the Best Western, a man came across the highway and asked us to see a few sick people staying in the church shelter there. We packed up our things and headed across the street to what Dian, a native of the area, told us used to be a restaurant. The church building was located in the triangle of land that jutted out into the intersection of Highways 70 and 3120. There were perhaps four cars in the gravel parking lot, and one semi cab. It had the look of a long-deserted building, the color of mustard, with peeling paint and no sign. Traffic blew by on the two highways. But outside the building sat two old black men on chairs, talking to one another. We got out of the car and explained to the young pastor that we were there to provide medical care to anyone who needed it. I sat down on a chair next to the two old men. As I sat down, two or three middle-aged women pulled up chairs in front of us and leaned forward, creating a ring of people. One woman had to translate the old men’s New Orleans drawl into speech I could understand. The one man we had been called to see looked out on the world with iced-over eyes, the white/blue rings of corneal arcus standing out against his wrinkled brown skin. He wore a pair of old loafers with a gaping hole in one foot. “Mr. Moses” (as I’ll choose to call him) told us that a tree had fallen on his foot, wounding him. The woman sitting across from us said, “Mr. Moses, that happened 40 years ago,” but Mr. Moses could only repeat his story. The woman told us that she was very worried about him, because his feet were swollen and he seemed to have trouble walking around. I asked her a few questions about his medical history, as Mr. Moses couldn’t recall what medical problems he had. Finally I asked if she was his daughter. “No,” she told me, “we left for Alabama and Mr. Moses wanted to stay put. But then we heard the water was rising, so we came back for him. Mr. Moses lives across the street from us.” The woman, who was herself homeless and living on a church floor, had been watching out for her neighbor for 11 days. Mr. Moses had chronic venous stasis ulcers and pitting edema up to his knees. I filled out a referral form to get him seen in the local clinic, 25 minutes away, the following day. I clipped his toenails. I could do nothing else for him that day.

That church amazed me. The poor cared for the poor.

September 9
We spent the night at the Jimmy Swaggart World Headquarters, which was doubling as the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) in Baton Rouge.

had taken care of patients with MI’s, broken femurs, and a septic two year-old. It was set up by Northwest Medical, a really great operation out of Portland, Oregon. Other doctors and nurses made their way there during the week to help treat the thousand or so patients who came through during the five days it had been in operation. Most of the people I saw on Friday and Saturday fell into two groups: the elderly, who had been rescued or coaxed out of their homes; and those who had dug in for the storm and were finally getting tired of eating canned food and sitting in their homes in 95 degree heat without air conditioning or running water. Many people brought their pets with them—cats, dogs, and even a ferret came through. Many of the people had no idea what they would do. I asked one man what his plans were. His answer was typical: “I don’t know if I got family any more. I don’t know if they’re living or dead. I’ve lived in New Orleans all my life. I don’t know what I’ll do now.”

Later that afternoon I saw a man in his 30s from Illinois who had come to New Orleans to work on the cleanup crews, a job that paid a lot of money. He was brought in by his crew, shaking and crying, “I want to go home!” and telling me that he had chest pain and tingling in his fingers. He told me after a few minutes that he had PTSD and had had panic attacks in the past. I talked him down the best I could and gave him some Ativan before sending him to an ED via ambulance. It was amazing to have several ambulance crews parked some 500 yards away, already paid for and happy for the chance to do anything with their day.

September 11
I spent Sunday and Monday in Walker, Louisiana. Sunday morning I went to the West Livingston shelter, a Red Cross shelter that housed about 600 people. I was told later by one of the volunteer drivers from Walker Baptist Church that it used to be the site of the only school for blacks in Livingston Parish. Sunday afternoon I went to the Life Church, where I was called to visit Pat, a woman in her 60s with diabetic neuropathy and a swollen foot. Pat, her father Otto, and her autistic son James had no home to return to. Pat pulled together a bag of belongings when they fled their home in Chalmette. She put all her medications into the bag, but she
brought only three pairs of shoes, and she forgot to pack socks. She had been walking around in a pair of flip-flops, because she didn’t want to wear tennis shoes without socks, and had developed a blister between her toes, followed by redness and swelling. She had been started on oral antibiotics three days before I saw her, but the area of redness and swelling had increased markedly in past 24 hours. I asked Jamie, a social worker who was volunteering her time at the church, to find Pat a ride to the ED, and I gave her money, anonymously, to buy Pat a new pair of shoes.

I have more stories to write, later. It was an incredible week. I was able to practice medicine without thinking twice about insurance or billing or more than the most cursory paperwork. I was able to make house (or church- or hotel- or shelter-) calls, going wherever there was an expressed need. I had the privilege of working with some of the most caring, open-hearted physicians and nurses I’ve ever met. And everywhere I went, I was amazed at the spirit of generosity with which people shared their hearts and homes and possessions with their fellow human beings.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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