“Growing a Nurse Inside – Out” (Katrina Story)

By Susan Sanborn RN

I became a nurse quite by accident. My college degree was in Psychology and I landed a job here, in New Orleans, as a Psych Tech on a Geriatric-Psychiatric inpatient unit.

Just so you know, I did arrive for my first day on the job in immaculate “street clothes.” Only to discover that I would not be guiding patients to group, listening to them, or assisting them in way that fostered emotional growth. No, I was bathing/showering, emptying Foley catheters, packing 4th stage decubitis, feeding, transferring from bed to chair and chair to bed, rolling, positioning, bathing… well, basically, I bought 2 pairs of scrubs after my first day.

It was my nurse manager on the above unit who first took me aside – after months of rolling patients in the bed, cleaning up feces and urine, feeding pureed mash to those who were no longer present – and said, “You really ought to go to nursing school.”

I laughed.

I also went. Because I was deeply intrigued with diagnoses and also, more importantly (in my mind) intrigued with how people reacted to illness, trauma, surgery… disruption in their lives on a greater plane.

For the most part, I attended each day of nursing school with a great deal of trepidation. I sat quaking in my little, white uniform – wondering if I could do “this”.

The good news? I could. Not brilliantly, and not always astutely but, for my patients. Initially, I was only skilled at keeping them clean and comfortable; my nursing knowledge was going to require some schooling. Still, this beginning fostered in me a deep sense of dignity toward every patient. A sense I have not forsaken.

I was one year away from graduating nursing school in New Orleans – proud of myself and able to note much growth – when Hurricane Katrina struck. Prior to Katrina, I was working part-time as a student nurse assistant at Charity Hospital on a surgical step-down unit for adult and pediatric trauma. Essentially, I was being “groomed” for a future position and I was very much looking forward to it; I found I loved, and continue to love, critical care. I also found that I, like many others, could not and did not, take the weather situation very seriously at that time. It’s not usual; you get so many false calls and you begin to relax…

Katrina hit us hard and, yes; I was on staff (voluntarily) on my unit at Charity. Not because I thought it was heroic in the least but, simply because I merely had a bicycle, a nursing exam in a week, and, yes, I would get double my salary around the clock if I stayed.

I will tell you that double the most amazing salary hardly could make up for what we all went through…

I am talking hand bagging for 8 hours on individual shifts equaling 15 minutes each, awaiting diesel generators to salvage ventilator patients. I am talking no suction for adult patients – only bulb syringes used on infants.

I am talking no lines, no clean gowns, no water for bathing, no NOTHING, no food, no medicine, no water…NO HOPE.

No rescue.

Katrina almost broke me, on so many levels. I mean, no, she did not ultimately harm me physically (I got out), but she certainly harmed me emotionally…dealt a significant blow to my helping ideals, my desire to be a nurse.

Yes… A nurse. For what? Why be a nurse? To be forsaken in the worst of times? To have literally nothing to offer to your patients? To watch them suffer because you have nothing to give? To wonder if they will get out alive and, truthfully, if you will get out alive, because, isn’t this the greatest country with the most resources?

Ironically, if I would not have completed my nursing studies “north” in Columbus (post-Katrina), I am quite sure that I would have lost my mind. Although – true confession – I often sat in “community nursing” courses addressing disaster preparation with a great deal of skepticism. Because the thing that drew me to nursing, the unpredictable, human element, is what is never addressed in even the best of disaster protocols. I have yet to hear a disaster plan that accounts for human fear, human panic, human rage…

So you go to nursing school and, if you are like me, you want to have the best skills, know what to “grab in an emergency.” You want to be able to tease out potential diagnoses, understand lab results, read a chest x-ray, start an IV. All of this is very important and necessary. You must be able to do these things.

Still, I think that one of the most important things that a nurse can do after all of that, is simply to be there. Because every disease may run a similar course but no human being is alike. No family that worries about their loved one is alike.

I’m actually back home now, back in New Orleans, trying to nurse in a post-Katrina city where the opening of a real, working, fully functional ER is a big deal, where the return of pediatric and adult specialists is a miracle, where almost everyone has a deep hurt and there are few therapists.

I work in in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I certainly NEVER thought I would do that. But, it suits me. Critical Care, lots of things to puzzle out, advocacy – sticking up for patients who cannot communicate, who are little and lost, who are barely born. Kind of, in a way, sticking up for the future of my city. A place that grew me and gave me nursing. Nursing – in so many good ways and is some of its ugliest.

And, I won’t lie to you; some days I don’t want to get up out of bed and face disease and death and babies born too early with no chance. But, the good thing is, there are those that make it; there are lives wherein I make a difference.

I am far from the greatest nurse on the planet; I have a lot to learn and a lot of hurricane baggage to dump.

Still it’s really good to be a nurse. I’m not pulling your leg. It’s really good…

I mean that

—Susan Sanborn RN