MY FIRST NEW ORLEANS HOUSE CALL is one I will certainly never forget. I was working in the Red Cross office in Metairie when I received an urgent request to help evaluate a very agitated man in Mid City. I left the office immediately and drove south on Interstate 10 to North Carrollton Street.
I met Arlo, a retired psychologist and Red Cross volunteer mental health worker from California, in the parking lot of an abandoned Burger King. Arlo had visited a client, Floyd S., the previous day at the request of a Red Cross emergency crew. Floyd had told the crew that he would die if he didn't receive his medications soon. Arlo had found him in an extremely frantic state, with probable diagnoses of schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, and hypertension, along with other medical conditions.
I followed Arlo down a side street. The wooden houses on this block had received major hits, both from Hurricane Katrina's high winds and from the storm's floodwaters. Most sported bright blue FEMA tarps, designed to stop water from leaking through roofs whose shingles had been torn off by Katrina's strong winds. Tall debris piles littered sidewalks on both sides of the street, blocking some access points. Cars were coated with dried flood muck.
Arlo and I entered the shotgun-style house where Floyd was staying. Although the building was elevated about four feet off the ground, the flood surge had done its dirty business. The house smelled dank from muck and mold. Filthy clothes and furniture were strewn haphazardly in the front room. Horizontal brown lines on the walls about four feet above the floor were evidence of the levels that earlier flooding had reached. Clearly, no one had done any cleanup here in the three months since Katrina struck.
We found Floyd lying on a bed in the back room of the house. We asked him to come out to the front room, which he did reluctantly. I asked him to sit and settled down across from him on a filthy rocking chair. Then I tried to take a medical history. Floyd told me that he was fifty-three, but his unkempt gray dreadlocks, lined face, jumbled speech, and unruly white beard gave him the appearance of a man twenty years older.
I ascertained that Floyd hadn't taken his psychiatric or blood pressure medicines in more than three weeks, since he was unable to get his prescriptions filled. The more we talked the more manic and incoherent Floyd became. Then he stood up and ran out the door.
Arlo and I went outside and saw Floyd talking to three men on the front porch of a house a few doors down. We approached the men, who told us that Floyd became increasingly agitated when he couldn't take his meds. Neither his wife nor his sister could tolerate him this way, they said, so he often came to them. The men sometimes brought food to him, and Earl, a tall man in yellow Lakers sweatpants, said that he had occasionally paid for Floyd's medications in the past. Agreeing that he needed immediate hospitalization to get him back on his medications, Arlo and I took Floyd back to his own home.
Standing in the street, I used my cellphone to call East Jefferson Hospital (in suburban Metairie) to talk to the emergency room doctor who had written Floyd's prescriptions three weeks earlier. He wasn't there, so I called the hospital's record room in an effort to learn more about Floyd's diagnoses and treatments. The clerk there told me she couldn't release any information unless I faxed her a release signed by the client. I told her I didn't have access to a fax machine and there was no way I could get this man to sign a release in his current condition. The clerk hung up.
I then called the New Orleans police, since they were the only organization who could provide transportation to the hospital. Five minutes later a squad car pulled up, then another, and then another, until finally a squadron of six police cars blocked the street. A posse of …