Disaster Response Work: The Gift That Keeps On Giving...

My worst journey didn’t seem so at the time… I have been a disaster response worker since 1998, and in 2005 I was deployed to Louisiana on the disaster response operation following Hurricane Katrina. I came into St. Bernard, Louisiana by boat- the bridges were still down. I only spent 30 days working there (through Hurricane Rita, as well), but it was the most intense and emotionally draining experience of my life, I think: I had (and have) Never seen anything like the devastation that affected St. Bernard and her people; St. Bernard was Hurricane Katrina’s “ground zero” in Louisiana. I don’t say this lightly, as I am a NYer who worked the 9/11 disaster response operation in NYC, as well as others around the country and in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin islands. During that month in St. Bernard I developed an oozing, painful skin condition that the D-MAT surgeon at the tent hospital diagnosed as a fungal infection, and for which he gave me anti-fungal meds and antibiotics. He also told me to have it cultured as soon as possible to find out exactly what it was. Unfortunately, no doctor in 3 states (LA, WV, & VA) would culture it, all insisting that they “knew” it was a fungal infection, and all continued to give me more and more anti-fungal meds, with the result that it got worse and worse. But I kept working. I went back to Louisiana in the spring of 2006 and worked on the disaster response operation for another 2 ½ months, and again was given Rx anti-fungal meds, to which I finally became allergic. And so I just kept going and working, getting slowly sicker and sicker. In October of 2006, 10 days before my scheduled and long-planned honeymoon trip with my husband to Vietnam, and while I was teaching, I developed an acute bladder infection, and wound up in the Bluefield, WV hospital ER… where I contracted pneumonia. I was on life-support for 5 days, coded, was revived, and had an infection-caused heart attack. Thanks only to my husband, who refused to accept the doctor’s order to “call her mother and plan a Jewish funeral” (I know all of the above from the ICU nurses- I remember Nothing!), an amazing heart transplant surgeon was called in at the last minute (we were blessed with him in Bluefield for only 6 shining months…), and he saved my life. Amazingly, after I learned to breathe and walk again, (5 days on life support basically atrophies your whole body…), I made a complete, 100% recovery, and was swing dancing with my husband in Dec. 2006! (I was told by heart surgeons that this is not as abnormal as it may seem; given no mitigating factors, 100% recovery from an infection-caused heart attack often occurs). But the toll was high: I began to contract MRSA infections, and thanks to the massive doses of antibiotics I was given, I am now allergic to all antibiotics used in the USA to treat MRSA. I can now only use natural herbal medications, and have had to become my own doctor and researcher, which is a truly scary place to be… But my wanderlust hasn’t died, nor has my adrenaline-junkie nature diminished; I’m still a disaster response worker, (and I have been back to Louisiana, which I love- THE best food and music and art and dancing- did I mention the fabulous food??!), and I continue to travel all over the world with my hubs as often as we can: post-heart attack trips include our belated honeymoon to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, as well as trips to Israel, Italy, Chile, and recently snorkeling & spear-fishing through Florida and the Caribbean, where I snorkeled with my leg wrapped in duct tape: I’m fighting off another MRSA infection at the moment, one I contracted while working on a disaster response operation in West Virginia last year. The running joke of the trip was that my Indian name is “Snorkels With Duct Tape”! Who says travel isn’t “broadening”? LOL

E J Goldstein-Clark

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