A desperate situation

Steamboat nurses helping in Louisiana


That's what Natalie Booker, registered nurse and director of Inpatient Services at Yampa Valley Medical Center, saw all day Friday -- her first in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

She saw inconsolable children separated from their parents in the aftermath of Hurricane Kat-rina.

Other local responders: Routt County Emergency Services Manager Chuck Vale arrived in Mississippi on Tuesday to help organize the emergency response. On Friday, Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan said Vale helped set up a base camp for 200 first-responders. The task included erecting 100-person tents, showers, toilets, electricity and other facilities. Before those camps were organized, Sullivan said that volunteers had been sleeping on floors or in their cars after working 18-hour days. Sullivan did not know what Vale's next duties would be. The Yampa Valley Type 2 fire crew left Wednesday for Meridian Naval Base in Meridian, Miss., to assist with relief efforts, said Lynn Barclay, mitigation education specialist for the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit. The 20-person interagency crew includes workers from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. The crew routinely is assigned to fight wildland fires in the Rocky Mountain region and elsewhere across the country. The crew likely will be assigned to a search-and-recovery operation.

She saw people wearing nothing but pajama bottoms and T-shirts, carrying all their remaining possessions in plastic bags.

She saw people searching desperately for missing family members, unsure of their fates.

"People look at you and they say, 'What are we going to do? What am I going to do?'" Booker said via cell phone Friday afternoon. "And we don't have an answer."

Booker and six of her peers at YVMC worked at a makeshift hospital constructed Friday morning in a field house at Louisiana State University. They flew from Steamboat to Houston on Thursday and made the drive to Baton Rouge, La., to lend their efforts to the massive humanitarian relief effort there.

The nurses are stationed at medical triage centers and already have earned a reputation as skilled, hard workers. They are known as the Colorado nurses, Booker said.

The field house where Booker spent Friday had been converted into a 500-bed hospital within hours earlier that morning. It had a pharmacy and a laboratory but was short on trained medical workers. Cots were used for hospital beds, and duct tape was the material of choice. Everything used at the makeshift hospital was donated by private organizations and hospitals.

Booker and other volunteers spent the day setting up IV drips, drawing patients' blood, changing diapers and administering medicine. They helped people with broken bones, cuts, chronic medical conditions and psychiatric needs. Almost all the patients had been rescued from rooftops, attics and highway overpasses, trying to escape the incredible storm surge that has left much of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana under water.

"Elderly patients just grab hold of you, and they don't want to let go," Booker said Friday afternoon. "We've all been in tears all day."

And like the six other YVMC nurses, Booker has done everything in her power to help.

As Booker spoke to the Steamboat Today, a helicopter carrying storm survivors landed in the middle of a nearby football field. Eight copters circled overhead. People around her sat in corners, crying.

She described a tense scene in which people's nerves were shot, the stench was incredible and the temperature topped 100 degrees.

The YVMC nurses are working minute by minute, not sure where they will be called to next. As afternoon turned to evening, they had no idea where or whether they would be sleeping.

And Baton Rouge is not a safe place to be, Booker said. People are not allowed out at night, and armed guards are on constant patrol. On Thursday, when the nurses drove to Baton Rouge from Houston, they were told not to stop at any time because of the frequent carjackings.

The nurses plan to return to Steamboat on Monday, but Booker is not sure whether they'll be able to get enough gas to make the drive back to Houston for their flight. Had she known ahead of time how dangerous the situation was, she said she may have waited before making the trip.

But the group is there, and their motto has become: "Whatever it takes."

"To me, it was a chance to do the true meaning of what nursing is, and that's about help," Booker said.

Some patients have cried when told the nurses have come from Steamboat to help, Booker said.

Booker is disappointed she'll miss her 25th wedding anniversary today.

Her husband, Tom Booker, said he is confident in his wife's skills and is proud of what she's doing. When she asked him Wednesday whether she should go, his response came easy.

"I said, 'Sweetheart, this is what our lives are all about -- doing this,'" he said. That means being where people need her, and Natalie is doing the right thing at the right time, he said.

On Friday, he asked people to pray for the safety of his wife and the other YVMC nurses.

As for Natalie Booker, she said she has realized that her own needs, whether getting a good night's sleep or a hot meal, are less significant when compared with those of the people she's helping.

"You see someone whose needs are so tremendously more. It makes you forget your own," Booker said.

But in all the desperation in Baton Rouge, she has seen moments of joy -- including when a grandmother and granddaughter were reunited.

"They couldn't even talk -- it was so incredible," Booker said. "Even though these people had nothing, when they had each other, it was like, 'It's going to be OK.'"

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail scunningham@steamboatpilot.com


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