Gulf Coast experience renews nurses' passion

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Much could have been different for the seven Yampa Valley Medical Center nurses who went to the Gulf Coast to assist with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

After their casual conversation over lunch on Aug. 31 about wanting to go help along the Gulf Coast, they could have stayed in Steamboat Springs. They could have worked their shifts and taken their time off during the holiday weekend, watching the desperate situation unfold on their TV screens.

Instead, they went. And their lives, as well as the lives of those they helped, are changed for it.

"I don't think any of us are the same," Julie McFadden said Wednesday during a news conference with all seven nurses.

For three days, the nurses served at one of several medical triage centers in Baton Rouge, La. They did whatever was needed, cleaning infected wounds, helping someone find medication or letting someone else tell what they had been through.

They saw people with desperate needs and tragic stories including mothers who had lost children, families who had been separated and people with medical conditions who had gone days without proper care.

Many of the people left behind in the mandatory evacuation simply were unable to get out, including paraplegics, diabetics weighing 300 to 400 pounds, the elderly and the sick, said Natalie Booker, a registered nurse and Inpatient Services director at YVMC.

"It was worse than the media's portrayal," she said.

Alethea Gaume teared up when describing how she still sees the faces of the people she cared for.

"(I know) that I touched these people's lives, but I'm never going to hear what happened to them and if they're going to make it," Gaume said.

One man stands out in her mind. He was in his 60s, and he used a wheelchair. For the five days he spent at the New Orleans Superdome, he could not go to the bathroom, so he had to sit in his own waste.

When a group of nurses and physicians helped clean him up and lie down for the first time in days, he gave them an unforgettable smile.

Carla Arce remembers one woman who cried and cried because when the waters rose, she was holding onto her six children and couldn't help her neighbor, who had three children. The woman had to watch two of her neighbor's babies float away and drown.

But in the middle of those sad stories, the nurses saw hope.

Arce was impressed with one woman who had been waiting for hours for medical treatment. After Arce helped her, the woman said, "I'm going to be praying for my Colorado nurses."

Arce was surprised, feeling like it should be the other way around, and asked the woman why. The woman replied, "But you were angels sent by God to help me."

Through the trip, the nurses also rediscovered their passion for their work. In a hospital, the love of nursing can be lost among the paperwork, Booker said. But down in the sweltering heat of Louisiana, all seven returned to the heart of it all, caring for people.

"We realized it was not about us anymore," she said. "It was about these people who needed us."

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