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Katrina turns pathologist into doctor for the masses

By Peggy Peck
MedPage Today Senior Editor

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Dr. Gregory Henderson

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (MedPage Today) -- Fate has a sense of irony, said Gregory S. Henderson, M.D., Ph.D. That's his explanation for the twist of fate that made him one of the few physicians available to the huddled masses trapped by Katrina's waters on the downtown streets of New Orleans -- "and I'm a pathologist!"

Pathologists are far more familiar with diseases that can be diagnosed by peering through a microscope at cells on a slide than with dealing with a sick or injured patient face to face.

"I was years away from my training in direct patient care," Henderson said. But he coped, and distant memories carried him through.

During his 11-day ordeal his greatest fear was that he would be confronted by an injury or illness "beyond his scope." Fortunately that didn't happen.

His greatest joy was rediscovering his early training. "A lot of primary care stuff came back to me," he said.

Native son

In his office at the Ochsner Clinic, where he is the new director of anatomical pathology, Henderson, 43, said his Katrina experience has given him a new outlook on medicine and a new passion to help transform American physicians into a type of "civilian medical national guard, where doctors could go every year for two weeks to re-educate ourselves about how to deliver disaster care."

Doctors, even pathologists who rarely deal with blood pressures and pulses, need to realize the duty that "became ours the day we put an M.D. after our names."

If Henderson is an unlikely hero, it is fitting he should be one in New Orleans, where he is a fourth-generation resident.

"My great-granddad drove a street car down here and I spent my summers working shrimp boats," he said.

After completing his undergraduate work at Tulane University in the city, he went to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee for a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

He followed that with training at Oxford University in England, Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and the University of Utah before finally settling into a private pathology practice in Wilmington, North Carolina.

He worked in North Carolina until early last summer, when Ochsner asked him to return to New Orleans to take over its pathology department.

A stormy welcome home

It was the last week of August and the Hendersons were still largely unpacked when his parents arrived from Jackson, Mississippi, to stay with their two young daughters. Henderson and his wife, Isabelle, set off for a weekend retreat for Ochsner staffers.

"The retreat was at the Ritz-Carlton on Canal Street. On that Friday no one was talking about a hurricane," he said. But by the following morning, Saturday, August 27, "we were stunned to hear that a big hurricane was headed our way."

Ochsner shortened the retreat, and as Henderson and his wife were checking out of the hotel on Saturday morning, he had an odd thought.

"The hotel is a big old concrete building and I realized that it would be a pretty good place to ride out a hurricane," he said. So, when he checked out, he also made new "just-in-case" reservations for Sunday and Monday.

Back at home the family decided that Henderson's wife and kids would go to Mississippi with his parents while he stayed behind to prepare their home for the storm.

Henderson had planned to leave town Sunday, but the roads were so clogged he decided to stay at the Ritz-Carlton.

Riding out the storm

When he checked into the hotel, he was handed a flashlight along with his room keys. Power went out at about 6:30 a.m. Monday and at that point all hotel guests were evacuated to a ballroom, where they stayed for nine or 10 hours.

By late afternoon, the storm had passed and the hotel had suffered little damage. But when the sun came up on Tuesday morning, Henderson looked at Canal Street and was shocked to see the sun reflecting off a river that was flowing where the street was the day before.

On Tuesday, he made his first foraging run to a drug store where he joined a pharmacist and some New Orleans police who broke in and cleaned out the pharmacy shelves so that they could stock a clinic in the bar at the Ritz.

The clinic was staffed by some family physicians who had been attending a meeting at the hotel before the storm.

In his room, Henderson composed an e-mail that he sent to friends and family, including former colleagues from North Carolina.

He described the dire circumstances in New Orleans and asked for help. Just as he hit the send key, he lost his connection. "I never knew if the e-mail was sent or not."

Step right up to the clinic

The Ritz-Carlton was evacuated the next day, but Henderson decided to stay in the city. He joined some policemen who were moving to the Sheraton, where he set up another clinic by raiding another drug store, and again setting up in a bar.

"We didn't have rubbing alcohol so I was using Wild Turkey to swab arms before giving injections," he said.

Soon rumors of violence in the city began to circulate. Henderson needed more supplies, so a police captain drove Henderson to Ochsner, which was by then the only hospital open in the city.

At Ochsner, another doctor loaded Henderson up with scrubs, sterile suture kits, a stock of miscellaneous emergency supplies, a copy of the Physician's Desk Reference and two text books on emergency medicine.

On their way back to the Sheraton, Henderson and the police captain passed by the New Orleans' Convention Center and were horrified at the scene of people stranded there.

Henderson asked to be brought back after he delivered the emergency supplies to the Sheraton.

The e-mail heard 'round-the-world'

And he did go back. Every day until the last evacuee was safely removed he tended to his "patients" on the streets of New Orleans.

"It was so bizarre. Here were 15,000 needy people and the only doctor they have is a pathologist," he recalled. By Thursday he was overwhelmed.

"Just at that point, when I really thought I couldn't go on -- my cell phone started ringing. That e-mail that I sent on Tuesday had not only gone to my friends and family but it had gone around the world."

The phone was ringing with news of help -- help from doctors in the Pacific Northwest, Texas, and from his friends and colleagues in North Carolina.

Help from those friends with truckloads of supplies -- and from an Army mobile hospital unit -- finally arrived Saturday.

Weeks later, as he recalled his 11-day hurricane adventure, Henderson talked about organizing a "medical national guard" and said he wants his experience to prompt action by his fellow physicians.

"It is never a good thing to allow ourselves to lose our ability to deliver direct patient care. We never know when we will need those skills."

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