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, causing untold millions of dollars in damage, and loss of more than 1800 lives. The other major hurricane that hit New Orleans with severe destructive force was Hurricane Betsy which occurred on September 9, 1965. I remember the date and the event well, because Cathy and I were there, and it was a month and 2 days following our wedding.

I began my surgical residency at Charity Hospital on July 1, 1965 following a year of internship in Atlanta, Georgia. 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 teaching career, and had only been there a few months when a mutual friend introduced us. Following a courtship during that year of my training in Atlanta, we decided to join our lives together in marriage as soon as the events surrounding our lives would allow.

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 4 year deferment, I could not be accepted into the surgical training program that I desired. I applied for that deferment and waited for 4 long months with no answer. We could not set a wedding date until I heard, because we did not want to get married one month, and have me sent to Vietnam the next month. Finally, I heard from the Pentagon that I was deferred for the 4 years; I was accepted into the surgery program at Charity Hospital, and we set a wedding date for one month after I began that program. It was as simple as that! Or so we thought!!

Charity Hospital was a massive 20 story hospital that had been the training center for tens of thousands of doctor and nurses for nearly 250 years. The surgical training was second to none in the country, and I was thrilled to finally begin the 4 year program on the LSU Surgical Service. My 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 I then took her 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 work at Charity. We had a beautiful new apartment near her school in Kenner, but it was a 20-25 minute drive for me to the hospital.

In the first week of September, there were advanced warnings about Hurricane Betsy that had formed in the Atlantic Ocean, as it was tracking toward the Gulf Coasts of Louisiana and Texas. Cathy had experience with hurricanes from her life in South Florida, but this was all new to me, and I was very uneasy about it. My unrest bordered on fear when I learned that 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 the tub with water that 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 that was on the second floor. As the evening progressed, I called her every hour to make sure she was safe, and she reassured me that she was fine. When I called her at 8 pm, and the winds were up to 60 miles per hour, I told her I had to be in the operating room for 2 hours, but would call as soon as the surgery was over. When I did call at 10 pm, the winds were now at 80+ miles per hour. Cathy’s voice had changed and her confidence had faded. 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 get to my new bride, so that no matter what happens, she won’t be alone!” I told her that I would be there 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 that I could see, that 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 roads. 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 at any red light that still happened to be working. I was not a Christian then, but I was so scared that 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 we jumped onto the car for the return trip to the hospital. At least now there were two of us praying out loud in the car, and I was not quite as frightened because we were together. I know that I made the round trip in record time, although I wasn’t marking the exact minutes. In all of the trips I made to Charity Hospital over the next 4 years, I don’t recall ever seeing that facility appear to me 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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