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Faith sustained hospital worker as N.O. floodwaters rose

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–With thick, steamy air choking his nostrils, no electricity lighting the hospital building and panicked patients wondering when they would be evacuated after Hurricane Katrina, Whit Tabor’s faith took on a new dimension.

Tabor, manager of social services at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic, drew the assignment of comforting patients and staff members left behind when the Aug. 29 storm smashed the city.

“It was not an easy four days; my faith was very important,” said Tabor, a longtime member of Calvary Baptist Church in New Orleans.

“I focused on eternity, not the temporal situation. The situation was temporary and I knew where I was going. My kids and wife were saved, so that wasn’t a pressing concern for me. We would spend eternity together.”

After reporting for duty Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28, Tabor remained in the hospital until Thursday, Sept. 1, after 120 patients and 88 evacuees from the Superdome had been airlifted to safety.

At first, Tabor said the situation wasn’t that bad. Tulane University Hospital and Clinic’s owner, Hospital Corporation of America, supplied water, food and medical supplies, and staff members continued normal duties.

Tabor’s first priority was tending to patients and family members, explaining what kind of care they would receive, where they would go after leaving Tulane and how they could be reunited with loved ones.

Tabor observed some tension Sunday evening when evacuees from the Superdome rummaged through other people’s possessions and one group commandeered a room where some nurses had planned to sleep.

However, university and city police and National Guardsmen helped restore order. When electricity sputtered off the morning of the storm, the hospital switched to backup generators.

Despite the relative calm for his first two days, Tabor appreciated the constant phone calls he received from his pastor, Keith Manuel, and church members –- as well as the prayers he sensed.

“I knew I was being prayed for and that sustained me,” said Tabor, the church’s longtime pianist. “I could literally feel those prayers.”

Then came Tuesday morning. With the air conditioning shutting off Monday night and no air mattress in his office, Tabor couldn’t sleep and arose before dawn.

When Tabor noticed medical supplies stacked in the hallway, he knew because of advanced planning that meant water was more than halfway up the first floor.

As dawn slowly revealed water covering the downtown streets outside -– a sign that one of the levees protecting the city had given way — Tabor broke into tears for the first time.

“I thought, ‘We’re going to be here for awhile,’” Tabor said. “Even then, God helped me recover a sense of calm. I had that cathartic release of crying, then looked in the mirror and said, ‘This is a different game. Let’s prepare for it.’”

At an emergency staff meeting that morning, the hospital’s chief executive told the group, “I don’t know if this is proper, but I’m going to open with prayer.” Then he told the staff to expect a loss of generator power and evacuation of all patients, beginning with the sickest.

The meeting helped everyone recognize their mission was treating patients and helping them stay calm before they were taken to a safer place, Tabor said.

Still, that didn’t mean it was easy making it through the next two days. With no air conditioning, the heat became unbearable, making it impossible to sleep, Tabor said.

With everyone sweating constantly, the dress code was quickly relaxed; nurses wore pajama tops or sports bras while caring for patients and some doctors removed their shirts, Tabor said.

Moving from floor to floor, Tabor did his best to relieve stress among staff members who were working without sleep, amid overpowering odors from inside and outside the hospital.

Meanwhile, another distressing scene unfolded outside the hospital, which is adjacent to Canal Street. Tabor saw looters and once watched a group of men brandishing weapons as they walked by a police officer who was in tears.

In addition, Tabor heard reports of people shooting at helicopters coming to rescue patients from Tulane Hospital, which slowed down the evacuation.

“While there was never panic, there certainly was fear,” Tabor said. “We knew there was a huge criminal element [outside]. But through this all, we did not lose one patient.”

The experience showed Tabor how extreme emergencies bring out both the best and worst in people.

One of the most irritating factors he dealt with were some Superdome evacuees who complained about food choices and not having any television after the power was shut off.

Yet, in spite of the obstacles, Tabor had many chances to share why he was able to stay calm.

“It gives you opportunities you’ll never have again to reach out to people,” said Tabor, who has been on the hospital staff 19 years. “It was such a stressful crisis that people definitely are open to hearing about your faith.”

For Pastor Manuel, Tabor’s devotion to duty -– both physical and spiritual -– is an example of the kind of service he lends to Calvary.

Tabor and his wife, Helen, have served as Bible study leaders, youth workers and with mission groups, Manuel said.

“Whit is a super guy,” Manuel said. “He’ll do anything for anybody. God has done so many things through his life it shines through in incredible ways.”

However, the one thing that Tabor doesn’t want is to be considered a hero.

“Everyone did what we needed to do to take care of patients,” Tabor said. “That was our mission. I knew God would take care of us if we took care of the patients. And He did. He was faithful.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker