Last night, I attended the monthly gathering of the Huddled Masses Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Historically, clubs of this sort served as benevolent aid societies, a social network that offered its members help in time of need, particularly for funerals. (The clubs served as an early form of insurance in the African-American community.) This particular group, formed not long after Hurricane Katrina departed, is an eclectic mix of locals that gathers to fraternize (and sometimes commiserate) over a pot-luck dinner and listen to a monthly speaker. The pleasure part here is much the social aid, which otherwise seems confined to trading notes about preferred mental health drugs. I guess Ellis Island has room for the tired and poor, but not the self-medicated and intoxicated.
This month’s speaker was Dr. Richard Deichmann, former chief of medicine at Baptist Hospital, who stayed behind to help evacuate the hospital as Katrina wreaked havoc on the City. His harrowing and heart-wrenching account would leave you speechless. (Dr. Deichmann’s full story is memorialized in his new book, Code Blue: A Katrina Physician’s Memoir.) The hospital was an evacuation center, not only serving as a drop-off point for some of the City’s most ailing patients, but also stuffed full of patients’ families (and pets!) who had nowhere to turn. Conditions rapidly deteriorated once generators ran out of fuel or were swamped. Without electricity to run air conditioning, temperatures inside the hospital reached 110 degrees in the hot summer; doctors and nurses carted patients up flights of stairs to the parking garage and roof to give patients the marginal relief of 95 degree humid air and hand-fanning with papers. One person asked, “So how did people die?” Any number of clinical reasons could be cataloged for these seriously ill patients, but Dr. Deichmann focused on one common affliction: despair. One could make the same observation about a struggling City. What is left if you have no hope? The Crescent City has a treasured history, rich traditions, and perseverant people who won’t let the City die. Take two of these with a little drink, and call the doctor in the morning. Cheers to the Huddled Masses!