Pafford Ambulance Service EMT Greg Coleman watched the polluted water of a flooded New Orleans stain, rust and generally erode the metal slide action of his Glock handgun.
Now the toxic water is threatening his health, as well as other Ruston-area first-responders who answered medical and law enforcement calls for assistance after back-to-back hurricanes earlier this year that may have changed Louisiana’s Crescent City and other Gulf Coast parishes forever.
The paramedic recalls treating victims who trudged waist- and chest-deep through the overflow of Lake Ponchatrain with some of the same symptoms that now have him seeking medical help.
“I can’t clean (the gun) because a film residue keeps coming back,” Coleman said. “And, if it did that to a metal gun that is nearly indestructible, I can’t imagine what it is doing to people.”
Coleman is not alone. Other area law enforcement and emergency service volunteers also are reporting medical problems and attempting to alert the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to recognize the health hazard being dubbed the Katrina Rash or New Orleans Crud.
Louisiana State Trooper David Bryant responded three times to the help call and also is receiving medical assistance after contracting a recurring 102-degree fever following his third trip. Doctors have been unable to determine whether his illness, which resembles pneumonia or bronchitis, is fungal or bacterial.
“It definitely came from New Orleans,” the trooper said. “My chest started hurting in October and lasted for more than a month. I returned to Ruston, but went back to New Orleans for a week over Halloween. When I came home the third time is when I had the high fever.”
Lincoln Parish Deputy Tommy Doss, another early responder, had a different experience — a rash developed on his forearm shortly after returning from his stint in New Orleans. Topical skin treatment helped his forearm for a few days, but then the rash emerged on his legs. During treatment, it also returned to his arm.
“Now I’ve got the rash on both legs and my arm,” Doss said. “I don’t know for sure that I caught it in New Orleans, or what it is, but a lot of people are coming down with weird rashes.”
At the beginning of Coleman’s first tour, the water did not appear to be contaminated, he said. That quickly changed.
“We would be wading along and find ourselves walking beside dead and decomposing bodies,” Coleman said. “In the heat, the water became very stagnant with a combination of sewage, bodies, gas, oil and other chemicals. It was horrible – and it smelled horrible.
“We were trying to save lives, but we never thought we would encounter this catastrophic experience in our own country — hunger, extreme thirst, people dying.”
Coleman returned to Ruston on Sept. 6 and during the next two or three days, his appetite disappeared and his body rejected all food.
“The itching skin was the worst part,” Coleman said. “Our (Pafford) assistant medical directors, Keith Carter and Zach Helsing, immediately recognized the symptoms as a medical problem and sent me to HealthSouth (rehabilitation hospital).”
Nurse Practitioner Shelyna Rice of HealthSouth quickly had Coleman admitted to Lincoln General Hospital under the care of Dr. T.L. Morris. Coleman was given hepatitis and tuberculosis shots, and a series of tests were run. Then internal symptoms showed up.
“The abdominal cramps were extremely painful, the skin rash was still there and the vomiting was horrific,” Coleman said. “The doctor told me he had never seen anything like what my symptoms were and said he couldn’t diagnose what I had.”
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) Web site at www.ashp.org, has posted an article claiming several residents in other states who traveled to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina have come down with skin infections and rashes.
Amy M. Hollar, a pharmacy practice resident at Mission Hospitals in Asheville, N.C., calls the condition the Katrina Rash. The ASHP field hospital treated several local (New Orleans) residents and relief workers for various skin infections and rashes. Several patients were diagnosed with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Robert Leeds, a critical care pharmacist at Durham (N.C.) Regional Hospital, part of the Duke University Health System, said another skin infection is being identified as being caused by the marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri.
A third skin infection is suspected by epidemiologists at the field hospital to be a contact dermatitis, Hollar said.
Heather Tornabene is a licensed practical nurse and a first-responder EMT. She volunteered to go to New Orleans twice and says MRSA is very dangerous.
“MRSA is antibiotic resistant,” Tornabene said. “Most antibiotics won’t touch it, so it is extremely hard to treat.”
Doss recalls post-hurricane New Orleans as a huge smelly mess filled with floating corpses when the Ruston contingent arrived. The air was also filled with smoke from fires burning out of control since firefighters had no water pressure. At one point, a factory or warehouse explosion sent huge clouds of smoke into the air and everybody inhaling the vapors suffered an immediate, serious headache
Doss and others were in a pickup truck at the scene of one fire where rescue workers were using Blackhawk helicopters with “balloons” to dip water out of Lake Ponchartrain. The helicopter would then drop the load of water hoping to extinguish the fire, Doss said.
“Deputy Jim Stephens was riding in the bed of the truck when a load of water was dropped,” Doss said. “We were so close that he was completely soaked with filthy water, and he didn’t get a rash.”
Ruston firefighter Kevin Lewis said he was in contact with the contaminated New Orleans water, but did not come down with a rash.
Ruston Paramedic Tom Leith said firefighters used extra precautions.
“No one in our department has said anything to me about any rashes,” Leith said. “We were in the second group and were really careful.”
Doss said he got off lightly compared to Bryant.
“Bryant has something internal,” Doss said. “He’s having chest pains and is in really bad shape.”
Bryant’s fiancée, Carol Dreyfus, said Bryant also suffers with abdominal problems, extreme weakness and fatigue.
“David (Bryant) is home now, but he’s going to a specialist in New Orleans after the first of the year,” Dreyfus said. “They really don’t know what he has — they just call it the New Orleans Crud. But he’s lost 32 pounds and looks horrible.”
Bryant blames part of his woes on lack of preparedness by state police headquarters.
“They dumped us off in New Orleans without the right equipment and they didn’t give us shots or respirators,” Bryant said. “The whole thing in New Orleans was really unorganized — horribly, horribly, horribly unorganized by both the governor and state police headquarters.”
Bryant, who prior to his illness ran an average of 140 miles a week, will enter Oshner Hospital in New Orleans where he will be tested by the hospital’s internal medicine diagnostic facility.
“I’m tired of my chest hurting,” the eight-year veteran trooper said. “I’m tired of the cramps.”
Ruston Fire Chief James Tornabene said the firefighters who returned from New Orleans only recently completed their shot regimen because no one knew what they were going into.
“We had no time to prepare, as if anyone could prepare for a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina,” James Tornabene said. “The second team we sent got Hepatitis A shots, and our EMTs had to have Hepatitis B shots.”
Heather Tornabene said for the Hepatitis A shot to be effective, it would have to be administered 30 to 60 days in advance. Because of that, she was extremely careful to not go into water more than ankle-deep and constantly wore rubber gloves.
James Tornabene said he was concerned about air-borne particles, but respirators were not the answer to disease prevention in aid workers.
“Respirators were impractical in the 100-degree heat and high humidity of New Orleans,” the chief said. “One of the keys to avoiding diseases is to avoid prolonged contact with contaminants — the longer the exposure, the greater the chance of disease.”
Coleman, 33, of Ruston, was the 2003 winner of the EMT of the Year Award presented by the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. His symptoms of vomiting, abdominal cramping, constant thirst and no appetite returned a week after he was released from the hospital.
Coleman said he personally treated people in New Orleans with the same symptoms, and the problem now is getting the State Department of Health and Hospitals to recognize Katrina Rash as a legitimate health problem. He issued a dire warning to anyone planning to live in New Orleans.
“My personal observation is that I see a serious safety hazard,” Coleman said. “None of these medical problems have been identified, and I recommend that people not go back to live and if they return to visit to wear the heaviest rubber boots and gloves they can find. I recommend they carry in their own water and not drink any New Orleans water or any drink with New Orleans ice in it.
“I don’t see how that city can recover. My grandchildren will live to see repercussions from the area down there.”
Copyright © 2006 Ruston Daily Leader