Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some refections on Hurricane Katrina

Four years ago, I had returned to work after an unexpectedly long weekend. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I didn't know what to expect when I returned to work, and was certainly not mentally prepared to meet the grief and loss that I was met with.

I had obtained my LA pharmacist's license only about 6 weeks before, so I was still new at the business. I was working for a grocery store chain -Albertson's - that had pharmacies in its stores. The state had given pharmacists authorization to fill prescriptions for medically necessary medications without having to obtain a legal prescription. We just needed some kind of "proof" that the patient had been on that medication. Sometimes they still had their bottle from their last refill. Sometimes the only proof we could obtain was a pill - that they didn't the name of - and they name of the doctor who had prescribed it. One person has stuck in my memory. He was an elderly veteran from St. Bernard parish. He came to the pharmacy with his daughter and son-in-law. They had just found out that they had lost everything. They had oily nasty water filling their home all they way up to the roof. He wanted to see if he could get his meds refilled. He had four or five different looking pills wrapped up in a kleenex that he carefully presented to me. He didn't know what any of them were called and he didn't have much an of idea of what they were for, he just knew that his doctor told him that it was very important that he take them everyday & he was almost out. He told me he just thought he'd be gone from home for the weekend, like he had been before. He -like the rest of us - didn't know how bad things were going to be until we were right in the middle of it. I used a database to find out what his meds were, and got his refills ready, found some kleenex for his daughter, who had been crying, offered my condolences and hopes that things weren't as bad as they seemed. They thanked me for the meds and went on their way. I have often wondered what became of them.

Days at work after the storm were long & very hectic, and sometimes just plain uncomfortable. I had to work one day at a pharmacy with only the back-up power running. (Were were still out of power at our house.) There was one light, one computer, and one cash register that would work in the pharmacy. The phones & the fax were down. The fridge had not been running, and I had to throw the insulin out because I was not comfortable filling RX's with insulin that probably had not been refrigerated for at least three days - it was very warm to touch, and I wouldn't have wanted to take it myself. I stumbled around in the dark a lot that day trying to fill prescriptions.

Pharmacists had to be on the lookout for people trying to take advantage of the situation. I had a number of people present prescriptions for controlled substances (pain meds, muscle relaxers, etc) that looked possibly legit, but they were dated on the day that the storm hit. How did they find a MD in the middle of a hurricane? I refused to fill those because they were probably fake, and referred the patient to a nearby urgent care clinic just in case they really did need medical attention.

James' story is a lot different. LSU was closed the week after Katrina, so he went to work at a church down the street from us that had been turned into a shelter. He spent most of his time trying to reunite families. Sometimes he had good news, and sometimes he didn't. One of the pharmacy technicians that I worked with didn't know where one of her nephews was for almost a month. He was about 6 years old, I think. He had been taken out of New Orleans on a bus, and he got separated from his parents. He was taken to Atlanta, and it took about a month for his family to find him. How traumatic that must have been for a 6 year old!

The storm impacted our lives, and we were only spectators compared to the people who were trapped on their roofs or stranded at the Superdome. I've wondered if we might have made Baton Rouge our home if it hadn't been for that experience. Who knows. I'm glad we're where we are, and I am thankful for the three years when Baton Rouge was our home.