A Wedding Gift We Didn’t Want

Metairie in Hurricane Betsy

Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest and most destructive Atlantic hurricane of the 2005 hurricane season. It struck New Orleans on August 28 resulting in flooding of about 80% of the city and causing untold millions of dollars in damage with loss of more than 1800 lives. The other major hurricane which hit New Orleans with severe destructive force was Hurricane Betsy, and this one occurred on September 9, 1965. I remember the date and the event well because Cathy and I lived through it, and it occurred one month and two days following our wedding.

I began my surgical training at Charity Hospital in New Orleans on July 1, 1965 following a year of internship in Atlanta, Georgia. There I had met and fallen in love with Cathy Young from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She had come to Atlanta in the fall of 1964 to begin her elementary school teaching career, and had only been there a few months before a mutual friend introduced us. Following a courtship during our one year in Atlanta we decided to join our lives together in marriage.

The war in Vietnam was raging, and I had an obligation to fulfill in the US Air Force. I had been commissioned as an officer in the medical corps during medical school, and unless I could get a four year deferment, I could not be accepted into the surgical training program I desired. I applied for the deferment and waited for four long months with no answer.  Finally, I received word from the Pentagon of my acceptance into the the deferment; I was accepted into the surgical training program at Charity Hospital, and we set a wedding date for one month after starting my residency. It was as simple as that. Or so we thought!!

Charity Hospital was a massive twenty story hospital which had been the training center for tens of thousands of doctor and nurses for nearly two hundred and fifty years. The surgical training was second to none in the country, and I was thrilled to finally begin the four year program on the LSU Surgical Service. My residency chief was allowing me to work the month of July and take my month-long vacation in August for our wedding and honeymoon. Cathy and I married on August 7, 1965 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where her family lived and where she grew up. Our wedding was perfect in a perfect setting, and we began our life together so full of big plans for the future.

The honeymoon was certainly not fancy, because we were living within our budget which at best was very meager. We drove toward Arkansas where we visited my family, and then we drove around the state to see some sights in a state in which she had never travelled. When the month ended we returned to New Orleans where she began her elementary teaching position in Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, and I returned to my work at Charity. We lived in a beautiful new apartment near her school in Kenner, but it was a twenty-five minute drive to the hospital.

In the first week of September there were advanced warnings about Hurricane Betsy which had formed in the Atlantic Ocean, and it was tracking toward the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Texas. Cathy had prior experience with hurricanes from her life in South Florida, but this was all new to me, and I was very nervous. My unrest bordered on fear when I learned I was on call at the hospital on the night of September 9 when the hurricane was to make landfall and strike New Orleans.

Cathy had made advanced preparations by filling our bathtub with water which we might need if the water supply became contaminated. She had all the windows taped to avoid flying glass, and she seemed very secure in our apartment which was on the second floor. As the evening progressed I called her every hour to make sure she was safe, and she reassured me she was fine. When I called her at 8 P.M. and the winds were up to sixty miles per hour I told her I had to be in the operating room for two hours, but I would call as soon as the surgery was over. When I did call at 10 P.M. the winds were now at eighty plus miles per hour. Cathy’s voice had changed and her confidence had waned. She said the Mayor of Kenner had ordered the evacuation of low-lying areas because of the prospect of severe flooding, and she was now scared and alone. She said, “Would you please come and get me?” I said to myself, “Live or die, I’ve got to go for my new bride, so no matter what happens, she won’t be alone!” I told her I would be coming right away and not to worry!

When I ran out to the parking lot I could hardly stand upright because the winds were so strong. My car was a small convertible which is the worst possible vehicle to be driving in these conditions. In fact there was no one else in New Orleans I could see who was driving in these dreadful conditions. This was the most frightened I have ever been. Trees were being bent and snapping, power lines were falling and electric sparks were jumping across the highways. Flying debris had to be dodged as much as possible, and when I would cross an overpass, the winds would catch under the top of my convertible and literally move me over one full lane. I never stopped for any red light which still happened to be working. I was not a Christian then, but I was so scared I was praying out loud.

When I finally made it to the apartment I ran up the stairs, hugged Cathy quickly, grabbed her overnight case and just before exiting our telephone rang! It was Cathy’s Mom from Fort Lauderdale, and she asked, “Are you two okay?” Not thinking clearly I said, “Mom, I’m taking Cathy to the hospital and don’t have time to talk.” Just as I hung up I knew I should have also said Cathy and I were both alright and are going to the hospital for safety.

As we began the trip back to the hospital I told Cathy, “I’ll drive but we both can pray.” At least there were two of us praying out loud in the car, and I was not quite as frightened because we were now together. I know we made the return trip in record time. In all of the trips I made to Charity Hospital over the next four years, I don’t recall ever seeing the huge hospital as a place of personal safety and peace like it did that night in 1965 on our one month (and two day) wedding anniversary.

Dr. John


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