By A. Chris Gajilan
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana -- September 1, 2005: New Orleans was a powder keg.
As the water levels rose and tensions mounted, CNN journalists were directed to leave the city. We had been warned of violence, looting, and most frightening, possible sniper fire.
But we had to get downtown, to Charity Hospital.
In the deluge of miscommunication right after the storm, Charity reportedly was evacuated. But we had learned it was not so. Hundreds of patients and dozens of staff remained inside, waiting for help with no electricity, no running water and dwindling supplies. The world needed to know their story.
"We can get you in, but we can't get you out," Dr. Alan Marr, a Charity hospital trauma surgeon, said that day, standing next to a helicopter that had just finished an evacuation run to Baton Rouge airport. Moments later we were beside him, flying south.
Housed in a mammoth art deco building since the 1930's, Charity was the nation's second-oldest hospital. Over the decades, millions of people had come to this building for health care -- everything from emergencies to clinic visits to surgeries. Quite simply, Charity hospital gave life to the city.
But four days after Katrina blasted New Orleans, downtown was flooded. Nearly everyone had run to higher ground. There were rumors of car and ambulance jackings.
"We were doing all we could to get our patients out that day," said Marr, 50, who had been working at Charity Hospital for four years when the storm hit. "We came together and did the best we could."
With no official plan, Charity doctors began to evacuate their sickest patients, first by boat, across the moat of chest-deep water surrounding the hospital, and then up the stairs to a parking deck. Once on the top floor, patients and doctors waited for choppers to evacuate them. Some patients were hand-ventilated by bag for hours. Two died before help arrived.(Watch Dr. Gupta revisit Charity Hospital -- 3:06)
Marr stayed at Charity for almost a week after Katrina. He was there when the last patient was evacuated. He was there when the doors were locked for good.
He ended up staying with friends in Baton Rouge for almost three months. In November, he and his wife were able to move back into their home on the West Bank of the Mississippi. He considers himself lucky. Their house had minor roof and wind damage, but it is livable
At a time when up to three-quarters of the area's doctors have left New Orleans, Dr. Alan Marr has stayed. Many of those physicians who remain have deep roots in New Orleans with families going back generations. Marr does not.
"Everybody, for some moment in time, considered leaving...There are a lot of people who are doubtful that New Orleans will come back and those who are fearful that this will happen again."
Some of Marr's colleagues have called him crazy for staying. By all accounts, New Orleans' health care system is in shambles. About half the city's hospitals remain closed. There is a severe shortage of available hospital beds. Patients in need of less-urgent procedures are being encouraged to seek care outside New Orleans. (Watch an update on the health care situation in New Orleans -- 2:53)
Amid such grim conditions, Marr not only stayed, but turned down numerous job offers around the country, including a chief of trauma position at a prominent university. He told all of them, "Give me six months and if they are not going in the right direction, I'll reconsider."
Marr is not alone. In a survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians, 36 percent of New Orleans doctors said that if the recovery were not sufficiently improved by the second year anniversary, they would consider leaving to practice in another state.
"I feel like I owe my institution and it's an opportunity to make something wonderful out of tragedy," Marr said. "Rebuilding the medical community in an ideal way."
For now, Marr feels that things are on the right track. He joined us as we returned to the hospital's parking deck-turned landing pad a year later. He had not been back since the evacuations. "It almost brings tears to my eyes to think about what we went through...It was amazing."
Marr now practices with other former Charity hospital doctors at the Medical Center of New Orleans Elmwood campus. It is 20 minutes from the heart of the city and the shell that was once the great Charity hospital. In a few weeks, University hospital, Charity's sister institution, is due to open, albeit at a fraction of its former capacity.
"It's not ideal, but nothing down here is ideal these days. But you get through it. You have a job and you have a responsibility and you just get through it."
Chris Gajilan is a senior producer for the CNN Medical Unit.
Dr. Alan Marr says he has stayed in New Orleans because "it's an opportunity to make something wonderful out of tragedy."