www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/articlePrint.cfm?id=538320The worst day of his life
By: BEN FINLEY (Thu, Sep/08/2005)
Flanked by two armed guards, Council Rock graduate Michael Shard motored through the floodwaters of New Orleans on a fishing boat. He was ferrying critically ill patients between two hospitals. A man with a gun appeared in the water a dozen yards away. He waded toward the front of the boat and pointed his gun at Shard and the other men.
One of the armed guards shot that man with his rifle.
"He went down in the water and didn't come up," Shard said Wednesday from his brother-in-law's house in Houma, La.
"We didn't stick around to find out (if he died). We got to the hospital about a minute later."
That was Thursday - by far the worst day of the 29-year-old's weeklong confinement in New Orleans.
Shard, a Newtown Township-bred respiratory therapist, was moving patients from Charity Hospital, where he recently got a job, to Tulane University Hospital and Clinic. "We had watched 'Black Hawk Down' a few weeks before. We felt like we were in that type of situation,"
Shard said of himself and his colleagues. "We just couldn't wait to get the hell out of there."
Once they made it to Tulane, they were no longer at risk of being shot. But they would see ugliness on a different level.
Shard and his new wife, Rachel, had moved to New Orleans last year so she could attend medical school at Louisiana State University. Shard took a job at Charity Hospital.
When Hurricane Katrina came, Rachel, also an EMS worker for the city of the New Orleans, had to go to work. So Shard volunteered to work at Charity during the storm. He brought a suitcase full of food just in case.
Like most of New Orleans, the hospital weathered the storm. But by Monday night, the basement, which held the backup generators, was flooded. By Tuesday the first floor was inundated, too.
Power was gone. So was running water. So were any cell-phone connections. Shard didn't know where his wife was.
Being a respiratory specialist means that Shard takes care of people with breathing problems, often using ventilators and pumps, machinery that requires electricity.
Shard and his colleagues hand-pumped air into patients' lungs, a process called "bagging," for hours and hours and hours, he said. They kicked out windows to bring fresh air into the soup of 95-degree air and 100 percent humidity.
His suitcase of food, which he readily shared, dwindled. Eight-ounce cups of cereal were rationed out daily. Shard barely slept.
The stress pushed some pregnant women into labor. The heat and other conditions exacerbated illnesses. Patients began to die.
"By Wednesday the hospital was drastically low on supplies and dangerously unsanitary," Shard said. "Two people paid a private ambulance service to take their family members out of the hospital.
"They didn't want to sit there and watch them die."Outside the hospital they heard gunshots. Shard said he saw fistfights and men firing at each other in the blocks below. CNN reported sniper fire outside of Charity Hospital. Shard's bosses told him people were shooting at emergency helicopters.
Luckily, Charity has its own armed security force. And the doors were locked. But everyone would have to leave at some point.
"It got to the point where it was turning into 'Day of the Dead' in there," Shard said. "People were walking around like zombies. Nurses and their assistants were quitting their jobs every day. They couldn't take the conditions."
By Thursday, Charity was "no longer a hospital," according to Shard. The patients had to move. Men with fishing boats and guns - men Shard didn't know - helped ferry patients and staff one city block to Tulane's hospital.
Shard boarded a boat and immediately saw dead bodies - nine or 10 - floating in the flooded streets. He saw people wading and then falling in sinkholes.
"I didn't see them come back up," Shard said.And then the man pointed the gun.
When they got to Tulane, which had limited electricity, Shard said he immediately resumed helping his patients with breathing problems.
Helicopters hovered above.
"The MedEvac flights were being delayed to get family members out ahead of the critical patients," Shard said. "People were dying. They were taking out people who weren't sick. I don't know why. To this day, I don't know why."
On Friday, Shard and nine patients were flown by Chinook helicopter to Louis Armstrong International Airport.
That night he was relieved of his duties. He reached Rachel by phone. She was OK. She had holed up with some police and firefighters in nearby Algiers.
On Sunday, he reunited with Rachel. "I hugged her for probably 20 minutes and started crying."
Now, they're staying with her family in nearby Houma, La. With their New Orleans apartment inaccessible, the couple has no plans to return.
"My wife and I are pretty set on getting the hell out of here," Shard said.
Ben Finley can be reached at (215) 949-4048 or bfinley@phillyBurbs.com.