Binding up a region’s wounds
Illinois medical team works in LSU sports arena

By PAUL KRAWZAK
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

Published Wednesday, September 07, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. - Melissa Kanches’ seven years as a trauma nurse in Springfield hadn’t prepared her emotionally for the stress of the past week treating Hurricane Katrina victims funneled into the state capital for help.

“I felt like it was Armageddon,” said Kanches, a member of the Illinois Medical Emergency Response Team that arrived here last week.

The 51-member team is working side-by-side with physicians, nurses and paramedics from across the nation treating thousands of victims, most rescued from New Orleans.

“I’ve worked at ERs in Chicago - it doesn’t even come close,” she said.

Added Dr. Moses Lee, a veteran Chicago trauma physician and founder of the unit: “I do very, very stressful work, but I’ve never had this kind of stress in my life.”

As they spoke, 17 ambulances and eight buses with injured or ill hurricane survivors were in front of Louisiana State University’s Maravich Center, in what some here are calling the largest emergency room in U.S. history.

The center, where LSU’s Tigers basketball team plays, was converted into a trauma center two days before Katrina struck, and it was fully operational the day after the hurricane.

It has been staffed with 1,700 volunteers from almost a dozen states and at least one other nation. As of Tuesday, the center had treated 6,000 victims and still had 70 hospitalized, university officials said.

Hurricane Katrina marked the first major medical emergency the 6-year-old Illinois team has encountered.

IMERT, as it is called, has played a key role in the effort as “one of three primary groups that came in and staffed this and made it functional,” said Bob Alvey, an official from the Arkansas Health and Human Services Department who is serving as a spokesman at the center.

The first few days were the most hectic as patients were rolled in on gurneys to the main floor of the Maravich Center or to an adjacent fieldhouse as fast as they could be attended to.

Many had severe sunburn and dehydration after sitting out on their roofs for days awaiting rescue from the rising floodwaters fomented by the storm.

Others had broken bones, bruises, diarrhea, and some were having heart attacks.

Nick Koletsos, another member of the team who is a paramedic in Park Ridge, said the demanding experience has prepared the unit for future emergencies.

As a paramedic, he said, “We have a couple of calls a day. Here, we’re getting everything at the same time.”

In the face of the overwhelming task ahead of her, Kanches said she had to “pull (herself) back and say: One at a time.”

Early on, she encountered a scene she won’t soon forget.

“The first thing that caught my attention was a child about 2 standing there with a diaper so dirty that it was down to the back of his knees, and he was smiling because he had a banana.”

Kanches, a registered nurse, said she felt like weeping.

Another patient was a 4-year-old who was sunburned from his hairline to his toes.

“He was separated from his parents,” she said. “That’s heart-wrenching.”

Early Tuesday morning, Kanches experienced her first death since arriving at the center Thursday. A woman in her 80s who was being treated along with her husband died during the few minutes that her husband stepped away.

“They were talking,” Kanches recalled.

When her husband returned, she was dead and unable to be revived.

“You see an old man sobbing,” Kanches said, pausing for a moment. “He was saying, ‘All the hell we went through in the last few days to get here and then she dies.’ ”

Lee praised the team for performing “incredibly well” in its first real emergency.

“It’s been an incredible learning experience. We have felt a sense of great worth, and we are very fortunate that we can help out our fellow American citizens,” he said.

Kanches, a single mother of two, joined IMERT after feeling helpless when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Members of the unit are volunteers who have other full-time jobs, such as Kanches, a sales and leasing agent at an auto dealership.

Like other members of the team, Kanches said she never will be the same after this experience.

“The week before I came, for a couple of nights I lost sleep about how I was going to pay some particular bills,” she recalled. “Now I definitely have a greater appreciation for life.”