Courage Amid Katrina's Chaos

ByABC News

Dec. 16, 2005 — -- Just two weeks ago, Hunter Reeves married Kristy Arceneaux in a wedding ceremony that was remarkable, not just because of the wonderful occasion, but because it took place at all. Just a few months ago Reeves was clinging to life in an intensive care unit when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, leaving him and other patients perilously close to death.

Reeves was at New Orleans' Charity Hospital. His lungs were filling with fluid. His kidneys were failing. And his life was in the hands of a remarkable medical team led by Dr. Ben DeBoisBlanc.

DeBoisBlanc, better known as Dr. Ben, ran the intensive care unit at Charity Hospital and Dr. Peter Deblieux ran the emergency room and helped teach emergency medicine.

While nature put Reeves and patients like him in unlucky circumstances, he was extraordinarily fortunate -- he was at Charity Hospital.

The hospital doesn't just represent top-notch medical care, it means something more to the community. "That hospital stands for a lot of things, and it mostly stands for taking care of all patients regardless of their ability to pay," said DeBoisBlanc.

"Seventy percent of the doctors that practice within the state of Louisiana came through the halls of Charity Hospital. Seventy percent. We're committed to the care of our patients. It's the mission of the hospital," Deblieux added.

That mission was about to be tested as never before. Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the city and the doctors and hospital staff were literally camping out in the hospital halls in sleeping bags, preparing for the worst.

Both Deblieux and DeBoisBlanc had been through hurricanes before, but each said they felt this storm was going to be different.

"Typically when we do activations, it's two days of flurry and a lot of activity and then ... everybody goes home. In this case we had the sense that it was going to be a bit more substantial," Deblieux said.

DeBoisBlanc said he considered taking a photo of his late father with him to work that day. "I was leaving and I saw a picture of my father and his boat hanging on the wall. And I went to grab it and I had this premonition that maybe I shouldn't, that I should leave it there for some reason. I think I had a sense that maybe his spirit would kind of look over things because I clearly had a sense that this was going to be different," he said.

Damage to the hospital seemed minimal at first, but the floodwaters continued to rise and backup generators were failing.

"It wasn't until Tuesday morning when our other backup generator went out and the sun came up and we could see that the whole city was flooding from every direction that we realized we were in big trouble," DeBoisBlanc said.

Water flooded the basement and the stairwells and was threatening the first floor. In about two hours, the hospital staff hurriedly carried 50 seriously ill patients, their ventilators and medical equipment up a flight of stairs. Without air conditioning, the temperature inside the hospital approached 100 degrees.

"The heat and humidity was outrageous. ... At about 72 hours after we had had two days of no power, no electricity to run elevators, no showering conditions, no toilets that worked, people kind of began to lose it," Deblieux said.

Without power in the intensive care unit, monitors and ventilators failed, and nurses and doctors kept patients alive by hand.

"We were trusted with the lives of these people that we weren't sure were going to pull through ... we didn't have the resources to protect their interests. And so we were very worried that several of them would die," said DeBoisBlanc.

Reeves was one of those patients. He could not breathe on his own and needed constant help.

Respiratory therapist Celeste Wydell was Reeves' godsend. She had suffered the devastating loss last year of her only son, 18-year-old Christopher, who died of sudden cardiac death during a football practice.

Wydell ran to Reeves' bed and gave him her full attention. She would keep him breathing, and she turned away doctors who offered to give her a break.

Wydell essentially adopted Reeves and decided that she was going to protect him.

Outside the hospital, security was becoming a concern. People were seeking refuge, and there was no more room.

DeBoisBlanc wasn't surprised. "We have served the underserved for generations, they were born here, they got all their health care here, they died here. They thought that in times of crisis, Charity Hospital was the place you go," he said.

But with reports of gunfire outside, and anger mounting, everyone was treated with suspicion. Hospital guards were turning people away at gunpoint, and directing them to the Superdome to get care.

Just as the staff's fears and frustrations reached an extreme, there was a break. They learned they were going to be evacuated.

The doctors worked quickly to get their patients ready for evacuation, but to their shock, help didn't come. "It didn't come Tuesday morning. It didn't come Tuesday afternoon. It didn't come Wednesday, and we started hearing reports that we had already been evacuated," DeBoisBlanc said.

"It continues to amaze me that a major medical center, a level one trauma center could just disappear off the radar screen for five days. It's unbelievable," he added.

For the hospital staff, this was a breaking point. There were tears and anger -- but there was also unbelievable stamina and unwavering courage.

"I would go to the nurses and I would go to the residents and go to the patients and say, 'I promise you. You're going to leave this hospital before I do,'" said Deblieux.

"All of a sudden it sort of crystallized our thinking that, you know, we've been forgotten. And it became obvious to a lot of people almost simultaneously that if we we're going to get out of here we're going to have to get ourselves out," DeBoisBlanc said.

That might be an understandably crippling thought for most people, but for DeBoisBlanc and Deblieux it just made them focus. "It was a triumphant moment," said DeBoisBlanc. "The worst thing you can do in a disaster, in a crisis, is wait. I think once we had a mission, once we had a focus, it gave us a sense of purpose."

They couldn't reach FEMA or the governor's office or the National Guard, but they did reach the media. Television crews had no problem getting to Charity and soon featured their story on the national news.

Private helicopter companies volunteered to start an airlift. Within hours, the most critical patients were carried down six floors to trucks for transport to a nearby parking garage where helicopters could safely land. One of the most critical patients was Reeves.

"Every time we moved Hunter, his blood oxygen level would drop . And we realized that it was going to be tough getting him out. ... As we were transporting him out of here, in the back of that National Guard truck, heading over to the parking garage, he collapsed his left lung," said DeBoisBlanc.

Using flashlights, DeBoisBlanc made a stab wound on the side of Reeves' chest and inserted a tube to reinflate his lung.

"We had the wherewithal to bring surgical supplies with us. But we forgot the sedation, the analgesics and the anesthetics," he recalled.

So, Reeves experienced this excruciating, but lifesaving, procedure fully conscious.

"It took four people to hold him down while we did that -- saved his life," DeBoisBlanc said.

Within hours, Reeves was on a helicopter and out of the city. The evacuation of the hospital had begun and would continue for the next 48 hours. Back at the hospital, Deblieux took charge of the evacuation as his team pleaded for help from trucks as they passed near the hospital.

But it was too dangerous to continue the evacuation, as the trucks and health care staff came under fire in the streets. As the city descended into chaos, the hospital too was in crisis. The staff was exhausted, their hope was fading, and the hallways and stairwells had become an open sewer. They had to get out, but they lacked transportation and the water was still too high.

DeBoisBlanc and his staff had brought some 50 critical care patients to the roof of a nearby parking garage. The move took hours and they now struggled to keep the patients alive by hand-squeezing air into their patients' lungs for hours.

"I saw so many individual acts of compassion in a time when it was out of context, didn't seem to make sense. I would have thought that those expressions of humanism from one person to another, that compassion would have been reserved for a kinder, gentler time. But it was everywhere," DeBoisBlanc said.

Yet even as the helicopters arrived on the roof, there were problems. The garage below was full of people. Patients from other hospitals and other residents who'd been driven out of their homes by floodwaters were struggling to get aboard. DeBoisBlanc had to literally fight for space.

Help for the patients back at Charity Hospital didn't come until the fifth day of the disaster. Air boats from the Wildlife and Fisheries Departments of three states began to arrive, with armed guards on their bows. Some patients were loaded on 18-wheelers that backed up to the emergency room ramp. The rest -- the majority -- went out on boats.

Deblieux had kept his promise. He was among the last to leave the hospital, but it was a bittersweet moment. "It was a very sad moment. You know, that's the oldest continually operating hospital in the country. And to close those doors, was a hard thing," he said.

DeBoisBlanc is also concerned about the hospital's fate. "I'm going to be fine. Charity, I'm not so sure about. Charity has had sudden cardiac death and I don't know if it can be revived," he said.

In the weeks after the storm, both Deblieux and DeBoisBlanc have been picking up the pieces of their personal and professional lives. Deblieux's home still stands but has no gas or water to this day. His family lives part of each day in a hotel room nearby. DeBoisBlanc had a remarkable surprise when he saw a satellite photo showing his beloved boat -- and home -- the one he had left the photo of his father to protect.

"Sure enough, there was Creola, floating like a cork. ... Out of 300 boats, there were six that were floating, and Creola was one of them. So, that was a special moment," he said.

Until DeBoisBlanc can move back aboard, he has been living with friends. With most of his belongings in the back of his truck, he continues to practice medicine at clinics throughout the region. Just two weeks ago, he took "20/20" back to Charity Hospital for his first visit since the storm.

The building is closed now, with no plans to reopen. The flood damage from Katrina is severe. It is an eerie place now. Emergency rooms and intensive care units remain exactly as they were left more than three months ago.

DeBoisBlanc said he, like his city, is forever changed. "I'll never be the same again. This has changed my life, forever. [In] a wonderful way. It's opened my eyes. It's made me more human," he said.

But DeBoisBlanc and his team did something that seems almost superhuman. They worked tirelessly for five days and nights in the dark without the use of basic critical care equipment -- pushed to the limits to keep their patients alive. Of the nearly 50 critically ill patients in their care, they lost only two.

And their devotion to their patients paid off for Reeves, whose wedding day was made all the more special because DeBoisBlanc -- the man who saved his life -- was there to celebrate it with him.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events