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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Drama of New Orleans' premature babies
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Baton Rouge

The nurses called the premature baby Sassy. Tiny as she was, she seemed to have an attitude.

Days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, that attitude may have helped Sassy survive as she was being evacuated from the city - by canoe.

Nurse Kelly Sasser
Nurse Kelly Sasser minds over her charges

Emergency medical transports from Woman's Hospital in the state capital Baton Rouge had been planning to take the infant out by helicopter, but, as nurse Kelly Sasser puts it delicately: "The area was unstable."

In other words, people were shooting at the aircraft that was trying to evacuate premature babies from New Orleans' Baptist Memorial Hospital.

"The baby was already on the roof, so they brought her back down," Ms Sasser says.

The ground floor of the hospital was flooded. Bundled in a blanket, outside her incubator, Sassy was then taken to another hospital where there was a second evacuation crew.

"She went three or four blocks, if not more, by canoe to get her to a Coast Guard boat."

Eventually, she made it out of the city and to the safety of Baton Rouge, 70 miles to the north-west.

Beyond capacity

Sassy was just one of 140 premature babies the staff of Woman's got out of New Orleans hospitals in the four days after the city flooded, says Staci Sullivan, director of the neo-natal intensive care unit at the hospital.

Woman's Hospital took in 116 of them and sent the 24 most stable to other locations. They had prepared in advance, bringing staff to the hospital on Sunday night in case they had difficulty getting there during the hurricane itself.

Premature baby's hand in that of the nurse
The tiny hand of a premature baby

The pace was intense.

"We admitted 42 babies within 14 hours" on the day after the storm, Ms Sullivan says, nearly doubling the number of infants in the unit - and filling it past its normal capacity.

"And each day brought more babies."

Ms Sasser worked on one of the evacuation crews as part of a team including nurses, nurse practitioners and respiratory specialists. She can't say how many trips she made in and out of the city.

She was shocked at what she saw when she got into New Orleans early on Tuesday, hours after Katrina had thundered through.

"It was more devastating than the TV showed. Railroad tracks were twisted like spaghetti."

Ochsner Clinic Foundation was her first stop.

"It was unbearably hot. They had lost electricity," she says.

With the power out, doctors and nurses were using hand pumps to keep blood circulating in babies too small for their hearts to do the job alone.

"You cannot stop. The nurses and doctors managed with what they had. They did it by hand," she says.

"They were the real heroes. They got the babies to us."

Separation

Back at Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, nurses worked overtime, and then some.

"During peak activity, we had 53 nurses per shift," Ms Sullivan says.

Normally the number is 27, and no extra staff were hired for the emergency.

The children went one way and the parents went the other way
Kelly Sasser, nurse

"The staff just pulled together and they were here. They worked a lot of hours."

While the babies were being taken to Baton Rouge, their parents were scattering in every direction.

Because it was the babies, not the parents, who were hospital patients, parents did not travel out with their offspring.

Woman's Hospital has now contacted the parents of all the babies but one, whose aunt has been in touch.

But many have not seen their babies since the storm. Some are as far away as Houston to the west and Atlanta to the east.

"The children went one way and the parents went the other way. Even if they have a car, they can't get gas to get in," Ms Sasser observes.

One mother did get to the hospital on Friday to see her twins, after days of not knowing that the infants had got out of New Orleans.

Despite everything, the premature babies are thriving, Ms Sullivan says.

"For all the hardship these infants faced, they're doing remarkably well."




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