The Elevator Operator

Charity Hospital Elevator

Cathy and I endured a harrowing experience on the night  Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans. Of all the close-call experiences I had in driving for fifty eight years, there is not one which even comes close to the forty five minute round trip drive to Charity Hospital on September 9, 1965. With the winds over 80 miles per hour and driving a small convertible I was fighting every second just to stay on the road. It was definitely not a trip for the faint- hearted.

I had no choice in making the trip. My sweet new bride Cathy was alone in our apartment and scared for her life. When I called her from the hospital to check on her she begged me to come and rescue her from danger. I had to be in the hospital that night, because I was on surgical call, and we anticipated multiple traumatic injuries from the hurricane. When she called I told my chief resident I had to get Cathy and bring her back to the hospital for her safety and any emergencies which came in would just have to wait for my return.

The initial leg of the round trip was scary enough, because I wasn’t sure at any moment whether the wind might blow me off the road or some flying object might crash through my windshield killing me instantly. There was no one else driving in the storm so I didn’t consider stopping for any stoplight which might still be working. I’m not sure how high my pulse rate reached during the trip, but would not have been shocked to discover it was at least twice normal.

I was almost surprised when I arrived safely at our apartment, but ran up the flight of stairs and hugged Cathy, while grabbing her overnight case, and told her to get into the car quickly. The phone rang, and I don’t know why I stopped to answer, but I did. It was Cathy’s Mom from Fort Lauderdale, and she asked, “How are you and Cathy doing with the hurricane?” I quickly responded, “Mom, I can’t talk; I’ve got to take Cathy to the hospital – good bye,” and I hung up. That was the very worst response I could have given, because shortly thereafter the phone service to New Orleans went out, and Cathy’s parents had no idea of the reason for my taking her to the hospital, nor of her present condition. It took me a long time to repair that damage to their trust of me.

Our return trip to Charity Hospital was equally frightening, but I was calmer, because we were together, and I felt we had a chance to make it back. I do remember we were praying out loud with great fervor. Neither Cathy nor I were believers at the time, but I’m confident this experience helped us understand in a dramatic way, our fragile condition and our need for a comforting Savior. We made it back to the hospital without injury, but there was still another hurdle I didn’t anticipate.

Charity Hospital was 20 stories tall, and the first 12 stories comprised the hospital portion, while the next 8 floors were the on-call rooms for the doctors. These were the days of an increased sense of morality, and there was an irrevocable rule by which no women  were allowed above the 13th floor. The women who were doctors had their rooms on the 13th floor so above that no women were allowed. The elevators were not self-service, but were the old fashioned type with a hand lever requiring an operator. The operators who were hired by the state of Louisiana were all handicapped in some way and most of them were mentally challenged. As we got on the elevator in our rain-drenched clothes, I told the operator to take us to floor 18 where my on-call room was located. Without even looking at us the operator said, “No women above floor 13.” I said, “Its ok, we are married.” Perhaps he had heard that excuse before, so he again said, “No women above floor 13.” I had him look at our wedding rings to prove our marriage to each other while I said in a very agitated manner, “Look, we’ve risked our lives driving from Kenner to get here so my wife can spend the night during the hurricane. Please punch floor 18!” For the last time he said, “I’m not taking her to floor 18.” I looked the man in the eye and said to him in a tone he could not misunderstand, “If you don’t push #18 right now, I’m going to kill you!!” We immediately were taken to floor 18 with no more discussion. I had never made such a threat in my life, but was reacting to the whole life-threatening event we had just experienced. Cathy was beginning to wonder just what kind of man she had recently married.

Cathy spent a restless night in the room while I spent most of the night working on trauma victims from the hurricane. She was safe from the storm which raged outside, and this was my goal for her for the night.

The next morning before the shift change I found our elevator operator and apologized to him for my angry behavior while telling him I would not harmed him in any way. For the next four years I worked at Charity Hospital I would frequently encounter this same operator and joke with him to try to establish a trust and a friendship. I’m convinced he never did trust me and was never quite sure whether I could ever get mad enough to kill him! At least we never had to go through another hurricane to test my resolve.

Dr. John

2 thoughts on “The Elevator Operator

  1. I didn’t know y’all were down there back then! We lived in Belle Chasse and drove into Metairie to be safe! By the way, I ran into Rachel today as she was home for her 35th high school reunion. I’m so glad she told me about your blog!

    • Thanks Todd. I didn’t know that you lived there either. You must have been mighty young in 1965! Hope you are doing well now. Come visit Cathy and me in Branson; we love living there. We haven’t been able to get Rachel there yet, but she promises to come with David very soon.

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