Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and Keesler Air Force Base, leaving many medical specialists without jobs. A group of 58 Air Force servicemembers arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center Nov. 15 to put their skills back to use.
In lieu of the shortage to LRMC’s workforce left by the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital’s deployment to Pakistan, the added help came at a great time.
“Our medical center suffered a lot of damage,” said Master Sgt. Tommy Belcher, Keesler Expeditionary Medical Service first sergeant. “Lots of inpatient services were shut down and we were left to pick up the pieces.”
The base, located in Biloxi, Miss., had significant damage, but the medical facility was rendered virtually useless due to basement flooding.
“There was four feet of water in the basement,” said Lt. Col. Frank Glenn, Keesler Expeditionary Medical Service commander.
“That didn’t bode well for the Emergency Room, nuclear medicine, pharmacy, chow hall, supply and logistics, power production and the computer system infrastructure, all of which are housed in the basement,” he said. “There was water damage elsewhere, but this was the biggie. Most of us will not have jobs at Keesler for about a year.”
Ever since the disaster, personnel from Keesler have been working to get the base back in working order. It was a big effort to help recover clinics within the hospital, such as family practice and physical therapy, he said.
“It basically got to the point where we could no longer help the base recover,” said Colonel Glenn. “Especially for some of the surgeons we brought over.
They need to cut regularly to keep their skills sharp. I think most of them are very happy to be here. We don’t see battle injuries at Keesler. To see fresh, out-of-the-theater war injuries can be an awesome experience for our young, enlisted personnel – even for an old timer like me.”
The transition came easier for some than others. Colonel Glenn’s home was untouched, while his neighbors on each side had terrible damage. Master Sgt. Belcher’s home had minimal damage as well. Staff Sgt. Alana Rayon, however, wasn’t as lucky. Her place was rendered unlivable. Significant flooding to her bedroom and damage to her furniture forced her to live with a coworker for three weeks, then inside the hospital for an additional week.
Toss in the fact that her husband (stationed elsewhere) had to wait two weeks to find out if his wife still lived and, well, it was a stressful time.
“At first I wasn’t happy to be here,” said Sergeant Rayon, a medical service technician in the LRMC Emergency Room. “I had to take care of things at home. I lost my vehicle, my master bedroom was flooded. Phones were down for two weeks, so my husband didn’t know if I was alive or dead.”
Living at the hospital with no electricity wasn’t the greatest of experiences either. She would wake up when the sun came up and go to bed when it went back down. Initially, the thing that made this deployment tolerable was the closeness she felt with her coworkers.
“The people that I came with are so nice, upbeat and hardworking,” she said. “It’s nice to be here. You don’t have to deal with traffic lights not working and long lines at the grocery store. But it’s sad to be here, too, because you can’t take care of your family. But everything happens for a reason and I know I was sent on this deployment for a reason.”
Possibly to help someone? “Already did it,” she said.