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Mayhem hampering hospital evacuations

Ambulance workers working in fear, company head says

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- A private ambulance service says it is being hindered in its efforts to evacuate patients from New Orleans hospitals by the lawlessness in the city and appealed to President Bush to activate the military.

"If we don't have the federal presence in New Orleans tonight at dark, it will no longer be safe to be there, hospital or no hospital," Acadian Ambulance Services chief executive officer Richard Zuschlag told CNN.

Acadian, based in Lafayette, Louisiana, is trying to evacuate some 2,000 patients from hospitals before nightfall Wednesday, including dozens of critically ill babies at medical facilities with no electricity or water.

The firm's priority is getting out 25 critically ill infants from Children's Hospital and 100 babies from Touro Infirmary, said spokeswoman Julie Mahfouz.

Zuschlag said part of the reason Touro requested the evacuation of its 175 patients -- including 100 babies -- "is the unrest in New Orleans."

He said his workers have been victims of the looting and mayhem across the city.

"My people are in harm's way," he said. "They are scared. Our command station about an hour ago had the generator stolen off the back of it. We've had an ambulance turned over.

"Things are not good in New Orleans. It's very serious now."

An Alabama medical team helped evacuate four babies from Ochsner Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit Tuesday and planned to get two more out Wednesday. It may also help evacuate newborns from Children's Hospital. (See a video describing how an Alabama hospital will take on New Orleans' critical newborns)

The main reason for the evacuation is that the floodwater has knocked out electricity, and backup generators have been rendered useless because there is no way to get fuel.

The hospitals Acadian is evacuating include Tulane, Charity, Veterans, Memorial, Children's, Touro and University. Mahfouz said calls were coming in every minute.

In addition to its fleet of 20 helicopters, or "air ambulances," Acadian is using boats from the National Wildlife Refuge and the National Guard because some hospitals cannot handle the heavy helicopters, which can no longer land on the ground, Mahfouz said.

Rounds by flashlight

A Birmingham, Alabama, medical worker who helped transport the four babies Tuesday from Ochsner, described the scene there in an e-mail.

Jason Peterson, a registered nurse who coordinates critical care transport for the Children's Hospital of Alabama, said when he and his team arrived they saw workers "working in T-shirts, shorts and flip flops due to the lack of ventilation."

"It was at least 110-120 degrees in the unit," Peterson said. "They had all of the babies in open cribs or warmers that were off and all were down to their diapers, some with elevated [temperatures] still."

Conditions at Ochsner mirrored those reported at medical facilities around the metropolitan area.

At Charity Hospital, the city's major trauma center, two intensive care patients died Wednesday morning as a result of the lack of electricity and water, doctors said.

"We have salvageable patients we are going to lose because we can't get these people out of here," said Dr. Jeffrey Williams, who is works in the intensive care unit. "They are human beings, after all."

Williams said the hospital is trying to care for 10 critically ill patients, four of whom need dialysis and need to be evacuated.

By Wednesday afternoon, four critically ill patients had been evacuated, including two from a ward that treats prisoners. Williams was not happy the prisoners were evacuated before other critically ill patients.

Because of plumbing problems, workers have had to use buckets for their personal sanitation, Williams said.

Dr. Ruth Berggren, an infectious disease specialist at Charity Hospital, said the facility had electricity until back-up generators ran out of fuel Tuesday.

"For people who were ventilator-dependent in many cases, the hospital staff have had to physically breathe for them using a bag," Berggren said.

The hospital can operate only "on a first-aid basis," as the staff works without air conditioning or lights to care for about 250 patients, she said.

"We are making rounds by flashlight," she said. "We have no ability to check laboratory values on patients. We can't use electrical devices to deliver intravenous medications."

New Orleans Children's Hospital is acting as a shelter for its employees, many of whom have nowhere to go, said Doug Mittelstaedt, vice president of human resources.

There are about 100 patients at the hospital, and they have plenty of food, water and medical supplies for now, he said. He denied reports the hospital had been looted.

A woman identifying her herself only as Laurie called CNN from West Jefferson Medical Center to say that facility is running out of resources, but the worst toll is the mental and emotional one on the staff.

She said a skeleton staff has been working 12-hour shifts since Thursday or Friday.

"And the worst is not even here yet," she said. The hospital is overcrowded, and there are people "everywhere you look."

Overjoyed for the help

Peterson, the critical care nurse from Alabama, described the emotional devastation in Ochsner's neonatal unit when he arrived:

"Upon entering the makeshift nursery, the first two staff were on phones crying their eyes out talking to someone on the other end trying to cope. All of the staff in the unit were overjoyed to see that someone had come to help," Peterson said in his e-mail.

The unit's workers, who had been working since Saturday, told Peterson they do not expect to be able to leave the hospital until next week.

"With that said, many have nothing to go home to," he said, noting some had no idea of the extent of the damage across the city.

"The nurse practitioner in the unit pulled me aside and asked me, 'How bad is it out there looking from the air? I mean really, is it as bad as they say?' " Peterson said.

"With tears running down her face and tears in my eyes I said, 'Yes, ma'am it is, maybe worse and my heart is broken for all of you down here.'

"With that she had to walk away."

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