The hurricane cut off city power. The hospital's backup generators did not support air-conditioning, and the temperature climbed. The well-insulated hospital turned dank and humid; Thiele noticed water dripping down its walls. On Tuesday, the floodwaters rose.
Early Wednesday morning, Memorial's generators failed, throwing the hospital into darkness and cutting off power to the machines that supported patients' lives. Volunteers helped heft patients to staging areas for rescue, but helicopters arrived irregularly. That afternoon, Thiele sat on the emergency room ramp for a cigar break with an internist, Dr. John Kokemor, who told him doctors were being requested to leave last. When Thiele asked why, his friend brought an index finger to the crook of his opposite elbow and pantomimed giving an injection. Thiele caught his drift.
"Man, I hope we don't come to that," Thiele said. Kokemor would later say he never made the gesture, that he had spent nearly all his time outside the building loading hundreds of mostly able-bodied evacuees onto boats, which floated them over a dozen blocks of flooded streets to where they could wade to dry ground. He said he was no longer caring for patients and too busy to worry about what was going on inside the hospital.
Wednesday night, Thiele heard gunshots outside the hospital. He was sure people were trying to kill each other. "The enemy" lurked as near as a credit union building across the street. Thiele thought the hospital would be overtaken, that those inside it had no good way to defend themselves. He lost his footing in an inky stairwell and nearly pitched down the concrete steps before catching himself. Panicked and convinced he would die, he reached his family by cell phone to say good-bye.
Thiele felt abandoned. You pay your taxes, he thought, and you assume the government will take care of you in a disaster. He also wondered why Tenet, the giant Texas-based hospital chain that owned Memorial, had not yet sent any means of rescue.
Finally, on Thursday morning, the company dispatched leased helicopters, while other aircraft from the Coast Guard, Air Force, and Navy hovered overhead awaiting a turn to perch on Memorial's helipad. Airboats came and went with the earsplitting drone of airplane engines.
The pilots would not allow pets on board the aircraft and watercraft,
creating a predicament for the staff members who had brought them to the hospital for the storm. A young internist held a Siamese cat as Thiele felt for its breastbone and ribs and conjured up the anatomy he had learned in a college dissection class. He aimed the syringe full of potassium chloride at the cat's heart. The animal wriggled free of the doctor's hands and swiped and tore Thiele's sweat-soaked scrub shirt. Its whitish fur stuck to him. They caught the animal and tried again to euthanize it, working in a hallway perhaps twenty feet away from the patients in the second-floor lobby. It was craziness.
A tearful doctor came to Thiele with news she had been offered a spot on a boat with her beautiful twenty-pound sheltie. She had quickly trained it to lie in a duffel bag. Several of the doctor's human companions were insisting they would not leave without her. Since the floodwaters had surrounded them, the doctor had been sick to her stomach and continuously afraid. She wanted to go while she had this chance, but she felt guilty about abandoning her colleagues and the remaining patients. "Don't cry, just go," Thiele said. "An animal's like a child." He reassured her: "We gonna get by without you. I promise you."
Thiele walked back and forth through the second-floor lobby multiple times as he journeyed between the hospital and his medical office. As the hours passed, the volunteers fanning the patients on their stretchers were shooed downstairs to join an evacuation line snaking through the emergency room.
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