Ordinarily, Dr. Greg Henderson works as the director of Anatomic Pathology at Ochsner Clinic Foundation. Pathologists rarely come face to face with patients; they specialize in diagnosing diseases through laboratory testing. What Henderson faced on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005, was not his ordinary day. He became the primary physician for thousands of potential patients stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. As the only medically trained person available with extremely limited supplies, Henderson relied on skills he hadn't used since medical school and a driving desire to give hope to desperate people. For those heroic efforts, the College of American Pathologists is awarding Henderson the first-ever "Distinguished Patient Care Award."
Q: During the first few days after the storm you had set up a clinic at the Sheraton Hotel and were treating police officers and hotel guests. What made you decide to go to the convention center?
A: On Wednesday night, we began hearing all hell was breaking loose at the convention center. So while I'm taking care of these police officers, I'm starting to sweat. At this point I've been turned into a primary-care physician and it's not something I had done in 12 years, and my worst nightmare was that I was going to have to deal with a major trauma, either a gunshot or knife wound. And I had nothing at all to deal with that. I called Joe Guarisco, head of the [emergency] department at Ochsner, and asked for supplies for a complete trauma center. Capt. John Bryson of the New Orleans Police Department and I went to Ochsner on Thursday morning, filled up an SUV and started driving back. We took a different route back and saw the convention center. There were more than 20,000 people in the streets. When they saw me with my scrubs on, they started banging on the car saying, "Doc, can you help us, can you help us?" I said, "John, you gotta let me out of here; I have to take care of these people." He said, "There is no way I'm letting you out of this car. I've got one sidearm; you're not protected, and I can't afford to lose you."
Q: So you left?
A: Well, Bryson and I made a deal. We brought the supplies back to the Sheraton, and he asked his officers if anyone was willing to volunteer to go and protect me while I treated patients. One of the bravest men I ever met, Officer Mark Mornay, stepped forward and said, "I'll be right there with you." I consider him one of my best friends now. We went through hell and high water together. He got all the arms he needed, put me in a police car with my scrubs, stethoscope and what little things I might be able to use, which wasn't much because we didn't want to bring any drugs down there or we'd have been mobbed. We drove to the convention center, and for the next three days, he and I worked that crowd back and forth, going from one end to the other.
Q: What were the crowd's most pressing needs?
A: On the first day, it was basic hydration. These people had been out there for a couple of days, and the most frequent thing I dealt with was dehydrated kids. They had no water, and if they did, they didn't have enough of it. We're talking about babies and kids. By then, it was 110 degrees outside. We were trying any way we could to get water to these people. Mornay would go back to the Sheraton, find some stocks of water, and we would pass them out. Beyond dehydration, the next biggest issue was people with chronic disease. They no longer had medication -- about 60 percent of the city is diabetic and not a damn one of them had their insulin. They were progressively going into an insulin crisis. I had a lot of children with asthmatic attacks. Some of the most tragic cases -- I have no idea how these people got there -- involved rows and rows of people in wheelchairs, mentally ill patients and people who needed kidney dialysis. It was ridiculous; it was like putting 30,000 people in a brown paper bag, shaking them up, and dumping them in front of the convention center.
Q: What were you able to do for those with chronic diseases?
A: There wasn't a lot I could do. As I think about it, these are some of the things that still haunt me. Looking back, I know I did good, but I do wonder if I could have done more. The answer is no; I didn't have anything I could do it with. I had a pair of hands and a stethoscope. What I did was a lot of reassurance. I grabbed one kid and talked him through a major asthmatic attack. I used the oldest medicine available, which is your ability to interact directly with patients and your ability to lay hands upon them. You provide healing in that manner. In some cases, I was able to make an impact and in others, I couldn't. The best I could offer was some sort of hope.
Q: Did you have any hope?
A: On Tuesday, I had sent an email to every address in my account, explaining the situation. As I hit "send" the lights went out, so I didn't think it went through. I kind of forgot about it, but on Thursday afternoon as I'm working at the convention center, my cell phone starts ringing every 30 seconds with offers from around the country for medical assistance. They got my email.
Q: Until help arrived on Saturday morning, you were on your own. When were you able to finally leave?
A: I stayed until the last person was evacuated on Saturday night.
Q: When did you sleep?
A: By Saturday, I had been up for six or seven days. The first sleep I got was that night, when I collapsed and I had to be admitted to Ochsner for about 10 hours. The next day, I got back out there again. I returned to the Sheraton and continued to take care of the police officers. For the next five days, I assisted with various rescue efforts around the city.