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Juniatian Doctor Stays in New Orleans, Treats Victims Through Katrina Storm and Aftermath

(Posted November 7, 2005)

The remnants of medical supplies in a parking garage used as a triage site after most of the sick had been evacuated from Tulane University Hospital and Clinic in New Orleans.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Dr. Eliot Fagley, a Juniata graduate and a former medical resident at the Tulane University Hospital and Clinic in downtown New Orleans, La., will talk about his harrowing week spent treating victims of Hurricane Katrina as the storm hit and in its flooded aftermath at Juniata College at 7 p.m., Monday, Nov. 14 in Neff Lecture Hall in the von Liebig Center for Science on the Juniata campus.
The talk is free and open to the public.
Dr. Fagley, a native of Altoona, Pa. and a 1998 graduate of Juniata, until recently was a senior anesthesiology resident at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic in downtown New Orleans, just blocks from the French Quarter. Fagley was scheduled to work at the 300-bed hospital on the Aug. 28 Sunday that would presage Hurricane Katrina making landfall in the Crescent City. The hospital was in the middle of preparing for the crisis. Families of patients flocked to the facility, unwilling to leave the sick and infirm behind. "By the time we counted, there were more than 2,000 people at the hospital," Fagley says.
"They called me in on Saturday because the chief resident had evacuated with his family," Fagley recalls.
Using the volunteer labor of family members, hospital staff gathered extra mattresses, carried supplies to higher floors and moved equipment. Katrina hit New Orleans early Monday morning (Aug. 29). The hospital, lashed by rain and gale-force winds, withstood the storm, although Fagley recalls seeing trees float down the main avenue in front of the hospital. "I thought we would be going home the next day as soon as the water went down," he says.
Fagley and hospital staff implemented evacuation plans, loading patients on boats and huge U.S. Army trucks bound for a nearby highway overpass, where, according to plans, FEMA buses and ambulances would evacuate the patients. "Ambulances from our hospital's management company came, but FEMA buses never came. FEMA never really came," he says
The hospital staff went into crisis mode. Helicopters hired by the hospital delivered food and supplies and left carrying patients. Other patients were carried through the hospital onto an adjoining parking garage, where trucks were used to take them to an improvised heliport on the top floor of the garage.
Fagley estimates he managed to grab about 2 hours of sleep per night during his entire Katrina-related marathon. "We were so cranked up that we felt the faster we could evacuate the patients the faster we could get out of there," he says.
By Tuesday night (Aug. 30) power failed and evacuation efforts at the hospital were stalled because a sniper had starting shooting into the parking garage. By Wednesday, Army helicopters had joined the evacuation. "We felt safe in the hospital but if you went outside there was a feeling of the random threat of danger. People were trying to hijack boats -- we heard about the sniper but we never came under fire," he explains.
Fagley and other doctors began to treat patients who arrived from the Superdome shelter and from Charity Hospital, the largest public hospital in the city. On Thursday, large Army helicopters (Chinooksâ�"the huge double-rotor helicopters used to lift troops and supplies) began to land on the heliport. Fagley and other personnel had taken power saws and cut down light poles to make room for multiple helicopters to land.
By Friday (Sept, 2) Dr. Fagley was one of the last two dozen people airlifted from the parking garage. "I think everyone on the entire Gulf Coast did amazing work. Right now the death toll is somewhere between 1.200 and 1,300 and things could have been far worse," he says.
Fagley has left Tulane Medical School, which is closed indefinitely. The university offered medical students positions in Houston, Texas, but Fagley opted to go to Washington University Medical School, where he was scheduled to start a fellowship appointment in anesthesiology in 2007. "Washington University was great, they orchestrated a full transfer and I will start the fellowship as soon as I finish my residency.," Fagley says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.