December 16, 2005
For Terra Daniel, a 2005 graduate of the University of Maine at Fort Kent bachelor of science in nursing program, the desire to provide assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina was as compelling a calling as that which first inspired her to become a healthcare professional.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Daniel, 35, a pediatric nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine with her husband and 17-year-old daughter, knew that New Orleans was where she needed to be.
"When Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke, I signed up to volunteer. I was told by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) several times that I was on stand-by and finally, after two months, I received an e-mail from FEMA telling me that they didn't need my services. Exactly two days later, I received notification that I was needed from the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA)," said Daniel.
On November 10, the UMFK nursing alumna joined eleven other Maine nurses departing from the Portland Jetport bound for an intense 16-day tour of duty tending to the healthcare needs of residents in New Orleans.
"My initial feeling was that of pride in knowing I was going down to New Orleans to help those in need of nursing services. After that wore off, I became quite excited and scared at the same time because I wasn't sure what to expect," said Daniel. "I was told that there was still a curfew at the time and it was still considered unsafe."
Daniel and the other nurses were assigned to work at Truro Infirmary, a 155-year-old, 500-bed hospital and the only major health care facility opened in New Orleans Parish. Because of staff shortages and a city with much of its population evacuated to other parts of the country, just over 100 of the beds were in use.
"Truro Infirmary was flooded and accrued some damages from looting, but it was all cleaned up by the time we arrived," said Daniel.
The Maine nurses were provided a place to sleep and eat in a vacant psychiatric unit on the eighth floor of the ten-story building.
"We had no television and no telephones. They provided us with access to e-mail only," reflected Daniel.
The living conditions, which otherwise would have resulted in feelings of isolation from the outside world, seemed a haven from the long work days and the grueling emotional circumstances under which the nurses were providing care.
For her part, Daniel worked on the maternal child health unit, which consisted of four specialty units, including labor/delivery, post partum care, a well newborn nursery, and a neonatal intensive care unit.
"The most important skill I learned from UMFK and took with me to New Orleans was the great sense of pride in my abilities as a professional nurse. The other skill that I took with me that really got me through some bad situations was to expect the unexpected and keep an open mind. A professional nurse can adapt to any situation and that is what I did while I was there," said Daniel.
One such situation Daniel points to was recalled to her by an elderly patient who had undergone major surgery.
"Her name was Miss Ruth, and she was a 98-year-old woman who was scheduled to undergo the same complicated procedure two days before Katrina hit at Memorial Hospital. She told me she had a 'funny feeling' and decided not to undergo the surgery at the time. When the storm hit, she left the state with her family," recounted Daniel. "She smiled and shed tears as she told me the rest of the story, which included her reading in the paper that staff at the hospital she was supposed to have the surgery at abandoned their elderly patients and left them to die because they were old and didn't have a chance to survive. She would have been among those left to die."
Aside from her time working and living at the hospital, Daniel was able to tour some of the damaged areas hit by Katrina and where the levees broke.
What she saw was much worse than she expected.
"The smell was unimaginable! You could see particulate dust floating in the air and it was very hard to breathe. Nearly three months after the storm hit, it looked like nothing had been done to clean the areas. There was so much debris and trash everywhere. I cannot put into words or show through pictures how bad it is in New Orleans. Politicians and television reports made it seem like everything was getting back to normal," said Daniel. "I am in total shock after seeing the destruction done to this city and the effects on its residents, especially the poor."
Since returning to Maine on November 25, Daniel has been reflecting on an adventure she will never forget.
"Professionally, it was an experience of a lifetime. I learned many things, both good and bad. I made new friends and found nothing but the greatest respect for the nurses who chose to stay and care for people in need of help despite their own losses. Nursing never stops, not even during tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina," added Daniel.
Now home in Farmington and working in the familiar environment of Franklin Memorial Hospital, the UMFK alumna looks back on her time caring for patients in New Orleans and takes nothing for granted.
"I am quite thankful for having a home, a family and personal possessions. I am grateful for my family and friends. I came out of this experience learning to never undervalue what I have," said Daniel.