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New Orleans: Tougher, feistier, cooler 10 years after Katrina

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

(CNN) – As the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, CNN Opinion asked residents and those involved in New Orleans’ recovery for their take on the lessons learned, and what the city means to them. All views are the authors’ own.

Sanjay Gupta: The doctor

In the months after Hurricane Katrina, death notices in The Times-Picayune increased dramatically. Indeed, by the start of 2006, there were almost 50% more deaths than previous years. It is a horrifying statistic, and a reminder of the long-lasting impact of a storm that lasted a week and crushed three of the poorest states in the country — ravaging an area from Morgan City, Louisiana, to Biloxi, Mississippi, to Mobile, Alabama.

Even 10 years later, my memories of the time are crystal clear. Some things you are unlikely ever to forget. But my most powerful recollections have far more to do with the lives saved than those lost, especially at the hospital many called “Big Charity.”

Inside Charity rests one of my favorite plaques of any building in the world. It reads, “Where the Unusual Occurs and Miracles Happen.” It is audacious, and it is daring. It is quixotic, and it is adventurous. But for the hundreds of thousands of patients, mostly poor and indigent, who walked through the doors, received operations, were treated for mental illness, were administered their antibiotics, tested for HIV/AIDS and even began their lives — it was also a promise.

Yes, strange things happen here, but we will do whatever it takes to save your life.

Hurricane Katrina challenged that boldness, Charity and the remarkable nurses and doctors and respiratory technicians — and really anyone who worked at the hospital — who remained undaunted as the generators failed, food ran out and the water came gushing inside.

The unusual had occurred, and now it was time for the miracle to happen.

Three days after Katrina first stuck New Orleans, the Charity team, out of options, planned a rescue mission. They paddled dozens of patients across flooded roadways and then carried them up seven flights of stairs to the top of a parking deck to wait for a chance to evacuate the critically ill. It was nearly 100 degrees with unbearable mugginess, and yet the Charity team stood there, with scrub shirts drenched in sweat, and squeezed silicone bags full of air into the lungs of patients who could no longer breathe on their own.

They did this for days on end.

I will never forget it. Over and over again. Squeezing. They knew their hands were not permitted to become too hot, too painful or too weary. And, as a result, countless patients survived, even with the odds very much stacked against them.

When the helicopters finally started to land, it seemed miraculous to the hospital’s patients and the staff. I knew, however, the true miracles had already happened.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta is chief medical correspondent for CNN.

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