Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2006 | Features

Volunteers of America

By Brian Triplett & Dr. Thomas Cromwell
Author: Brian Triplett

Georgia sat next to me in the passenger seat, gripping her rosary and praying softly aloud while staring at the setting sun in the Texas sky. Her 40-something-year-old son, Sidney, sat behind her in my 1997 Toyota Camry, burping up the can of Coke I bought him and mumbling things I couldn't make out as I sipped my Mountain Dew and headed west.

Five of us began the 550-mile trip from the Hurricane Katrina relief shelter in Houma, Louisiana, to San Antonio. After dropping off Aneisha, a single 31-year-old, in Houston so she could be reunited with her aunt, we were down to four. Denise, likely nearing 50, sat behind me, either sleeping or pretending to.

At 76, Georgia was handling the long road trip quite well as we reached our ninth hour on the highway. She mostly kept to herself, making observations every now and then about what she saw out the window.

"We need that sun to stay in the sky so it can dry up New Orleans, and everyone can be back together again," was one comment that stuck in my head.

We covered their hurricane horror tales in the first half-hour of the car ride. Trudging through shoulder-high water, sleeping on the hard concrete of the freeway for three days, Sidney lifting his 220-pound mother into a boat and watching helicopters pass by to rescue others and eventually them.

I had watched the disaster unfold on TV for a week in my Iowa City apartment, and now there I was, becoming a piece of the survivors' stories.

But, for a majority of the trip, we sat in silence. All I could think to talk about was the tragedy, and I figured they were trying hard to push it from their minds. Never had I spent so much time around people I had so little in common with. They came from the projects. The only experience I had with projects was staying up late at night trying to finish them. I stereotyped the hell out of them by putting in a Ray Charles CD at the beginning of the trip that continued to repeat itself. I kept the volume so low I wasn't even sure they could hear it.

Unfortunately, Denise was destined for another shelter, but at least she had located her mother and brother and would be with them soon. Georgia and Sidney loaded their suitcases full of the few belongings they had salvaged into my car that morning, only hoping to find their family. I was caught off guard when I discovered this news halfway through the trip, but I soon came to the conclusion that hope was all these people had left.

After a few phone calls and a little luck, I had Georgia's granddaughter Carlise on the phone. She was working at a bar in San Antonio. The car erupted with emotion as Georgia spoke with her family for the first time since Katrina struck. She handed the phone back to me, and I took down directions while steering the car with my knees.

* * * * * * * *

I knew why I had hopped in my car to drive down to Louisiana a week ago, putting off school and work to go help the people I saw on TV. But, as I made my trip south, I began to question if I would make a difference. I drove past the freeway entrances to New Orleans only to be greeted with armed guards and signs that read "Emergency Vehicles Only." As I neared my sister-in-law's family's house in Houma, I saw a man teeing off on a golf course while one of the worst disasters in history was still occurring just a short car ride away.

"Why did I just drive 15 hours to come here?" I wondered. "Was it simply a romantic idea at the time that should have involved a bit more thought?"

Then I arrived at the shelters.

People were packed into gymnasiums like it was a sold-out concert. Their city was gone, and this was their new home. I spoke with a mother who had lost all seven children. When asked where his parents were, a little boy responded, "In the sky."

The chaos and grief were too much for a country to take on, let alone one college kid. But I came up with a purpose. I would do my best to pay attention to the small stuff. I held crying boys who reached their arms up to me. I played tic-tac-toe with a ten-year-old girl who was confident she was returning to New Orleans in a day or so. Then, on a Thursday morning, ten days after Katrina had struck, I drove my car to pick up four strangers who had no one else to turn to but me.

Fearless Finances

What scares a 50-year-old woman more than crow's feet or an empty nest? The thought of becoming a destitute bag lady.

Fear of the math involved in handling personal finances is widespread. I see it in the faces of women who enter the investing class that I teach as a volunteer for Better Investing (BI) (formerly the National Association of Investment Clubs), a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people on how to invest. After taking classes with BI in the 1990s, I accepted an invitation from my brother Jim Hurt, 61BSME, 63MS, to help him teach. The skills I gained from my UI teaching certificate kicked in, and I now lead BI classes in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio.

Since I also struggled to learn the jargon of the financial world, I can easily understand the difficulties my students face as they start the classes. But, with my help, they soon begin to decipher the mysteries of stocks and mutual funds, discover how to balance and manage their portfolios, and transform themselves into successful
long-term investors.

My reward is seeing their confidence grow as they learn to gather information and make investing decisions. It's wonderful to see them conquer their fears and take control of their financial future.

Margaret Hurt Daniels, 68BA, of Cincinnati, works for Procter & Gamble.

* * * * * * * *

The mood in the car had changed since Georgia and Sidney discovered they would soon be reunited with family. I heard Georgia saying a prayer for me. I sipped my drink.

"Hey, B, you doin' the Dew?" Sidney said.
I laughed not only at his comment but at the fact he had given me a nickname before ever calling me Brian. Then Georgia caught me off guard by asking me to turn up the music. Coincidence or something greater, Ray's words came from the speakers.

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through,
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind.

Here we were, a white 21-year-old college boy from Iowa singing alongside a black 76-year-old woman from the projects of New Orleans.

After Denise reunited with her mother and brother, I pulled up in front of a bar in San Antonio and told Georgia and Sidney to wait in the car to make sure I had the right place. I asked if a Carlise was there. Two women jumped up from a table, frantically hugging me and running out to the car.

"We didn't know where you were," Georgia's daughter told her.

"You were the only family we hadn't found yet," said Georgia's granddaughter.

I said my goodbyes and went on my way, knowing I would likely never see or hear from any of my co-travelers again. The next morning, I got a phone call from a number I didn't recognize. It was Sidney.

"Everyone is back together again, B," Sidney said.

Sweat soaked through my shirt that day as the sun beat down. I figured it was doing all it could to dry up this mess.

Brian Triplett, a UI journalism senior from Davenport, received first place in the national William Randolph Hearst Foundation's Editorial/Columns of Opinion Writing Competition for this article. Reprinted with permission of the Daily Iowan.

Emergency Care

Evacuees camp on the freeway, their numbers swelling to a seething mass of humanity the closer we get. A family pushes an elderly relative in a hospital bed down the freeway ramp. Urine and spit rain down on our vehicles and occasional gunshots punctuate the chaos.

Assigned to one of the 30 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams mobilized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), I've come to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to provide emergency medical care to the 60,000 residents and visitors trapped in the Superdome. Our goal seems simple: help these people survive another 24-36 hours until they can be evacuated for more definitive care. But under these circumstances, it becomes survival medicine-for the patients and the caregivers.

New Orleans residents forced to flee to the Superdome find themselves held hostage by floodwaters that rise to four or five feet, knocking out the dome's electricity, lighting, running water, and air conditioning. Trapped in suffocating heat and humidity, they face a desperate situation without the promised food and water or medical care. Equally desperate due to mounting media criticism, FEMA officials order my team-two physicians and 28 nurses, paramedics, and EMT firefighters from the San Francisco area-into the Superdome to deal with the volatile situation.

A federal police escort accompanies us into New Orleans. The evacuees who greet us with such anger and violence may not realize we're here to help. They probably don't know what the letters "FEMA" emblazoned on our vehicles mean. They simply assume that FEMA is an agency of the government that's responded with too little, too late.

As we approach the dome, an apparition appears out of the flooded darkness. The New Orleans police officer is soaked to the skin. Just 30 minutes before our arrival, he'd attempted to evacuate a family in a small boat. The mother panicked, the boat flipped, and a child drowned.

We quickly set up our medical unit on the concourse of the basketball arena, where National Guard troops begin to ferry in people who'd collapsed in the dome. We see patients with severe dehydration, chest pain, diabetic crises, and asthmatic attacks precipitated by the fires being started in the dome. We witness psychotic breakdowns, trauma from assorted gunshot wounds and fights, renal failure in desperate need of dialysis that we cannot deliver, and a number of women in active labor, whom we can and do deliver.

If we can stabilize them, we have to send patients back to the dome. Severe cases are evacuated by air, until-to our frustration-the helicopters are grounded after they were fired upon. After that, we have to line up these critically ill patients along the concourse. When time permits, we visit them throughout the night, hoping none have died. Unfortunately, four do.

As evening wears on, our supplies dwindle and we run out of virtually all medical supplies. Used IV tubing, disposable gloves, equipment wrappers, syringes, and other detritus, which we have no time or energy to pick up, litter the floor. Lack of running water prevents us from cleaning cots between patients, and even cursory attempts to wash up are useless. Toilets have long since overflowed, and people use the bathroom floors in desperation. The stench is overpowering, the environment surreal.

The Helping Habit

When I was 11, in the days before curbside recycling programs, I volunteered at a recycling center. Thus began a habit that's now an essential part of my life.

From eighth through 12th grade, I spent more than 800 hours as a candy striper. Many of my recent volunteer activities have been associated with my church. There's the Dragonfly Project that helps grieving families cope with the loss of a loved one; Feed My Starving Children, which prepares and ships dried food to poverty-stricken parts of the world; Operation Christmas Child, which dispatches shoeboxes full of gifts to needy children around the globe; and Habitat for Humanity.

I've just returned from my second mission trip to Costa Rica to help build a Christian children's camp for inner city kids. Closer to home, I have a "buddy" from a local elementary school whom I meet once a week over lunch to do math and reading games.

With all these volunteer projects, I feel I'm making a difference in people's lives. In our fast-paced world, people don't think they have time for this "stuff." But, I've found out that the time takes care of itself; you just have to show up.

Amy Lindgren, 91BSN, of Saint Anthony, Minnesota, is a pediatric nurse practitioner.

By daybreak, the situation has deteriorated even further. The few National Guard troops available to police our medical facility are forced to pull back to contain the potentially riotous crowd. With no protection in a hostile, volatile environment, we confront an ethical dilemma completely foreign to medical care personnel in this country. Should we continue to treat the flood of critical patients if we have to endanger our entire medical team?

The next morning, FEMA officials resolve our dilemma: they order us to evacuate. To avoid stirring up the crowds of angry evacuees, we leave all our equipment in place, divide into small groups, and simply disappear at five-minute intervals, back into the flooded basketball arena from where we hope to depart unnoticed. Fortunately, our plan works. The following day, regular Army troops move in and restore order in the devastated Superdome.

Since then, I've struggled with the question of whether our services were of any value. Were they worth the risk? I believe so. During those harrowing hours, our survival medicine saved hundreds of people—the poor, the elderly, the young, the sick, and the unfortunate, who were unwittingly caught up in America's worst natural disaster. Thanks to our help, they lived through Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Thomas Cromwell, 63BA, 67MD, is an anesthesiologist in San Francisco.