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Code Gray at LSU's University Hospital in New Orleans

Code Gray at LSU's University Hospital in New Orleans

ABSTRACT: On the weekend before Hurricane Katrina struck, Gabriela Ballester, MD, was the hematology/oncology fellow on call for LSU patients at University Hospital (part of the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans, along with Charity Hospital). She shared her story in a telephone interview with ONI.

SHREVEPORT—With a category 5 Hurricane on the way, Dr. Gabriela Ballester, a first-year resident in hematology/oncology at LSU, did rounds at University Hospital with her attending on Saturday. She wondered why her patients weren't being evacuated and went to sleep that evening worried about what was to come.

Early Sunday morning, hospital administration called a "Code Gray," activating hurricane procedures. Dr. Ballester said that in a previous meeting, Dr. Oliver Sartor, director of LSU's Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center, had set the policy that the attending and fellow on call would stay and cover the hematology/oncology service in case of a code gray. According to Dr. Ballester, her attending told her they could evacuate after covering rounds Sunday, since the LSU medicine service would look after the four patients on the hem/onc service.

Dr. Ballester's husband, Dr. Oscar Ballester, a hematology/oncology attending at LSU, went with her to the hospital early Sunday morning. "He had made hotel reservations so that we could leave the city as soon as I finished my rounds," she said. But then Dr. Vincent Cataldo, chief resident for the LSU medicine service, told her that medicine had too many patients of its own and could not care for LSU's hem/onc patients. Dr. Cataldo discussed the situation over the telephone with the hem/onc attending, who had already left town.

"It was clear that I had to stay," Dr. Ballester said. "I was new to the service and didn't know anyone in the hospital. My husband insisted on staying with me. We hurried back to our house and packed a suitcase. The most important item in the suitcase was my husband's medicine for his diabetes." She also casually tossed in a bag of cookies and a change of clothes.

That evening at the hospital, the Ballesters discovered that no room had been set aside for them and they had no place to sleep. "We were given air mattresses and sent to a part of the hospital that was under reconstruction—it was dirty and unfinished with no working restrooms," she said. "My husband and I, along with a few others also seeking a place to sleep, decided to cross the pedestrian bridge over to the Seton Building where my husband had his office."

Monday morning, the hurricane struck full force; the winds caused the Seton Building to move and shake. Worried about their patients, Dr. Ballester and her husband crossed the bridge back to the hospital. They moved their patients into the hallway to avoid the breaking windows. "Our four patients were frightened but okay," she said, "so when the nurses said they needed help with a patient on the medical service who was bleeding, I offered Dr. Cataldo my help."

Shortly after the hurricane hit, phone and computer services were lost, but the hospital had running water and electricity from the hospital generators. It was crowded, Dr. Ballester said, not only with necessary staff, but with family members of the hospital employees, family members of the patients, and people who walked in from the street.

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