Archive for Thursday, October 6, 2005

Local doc returns from hurricane relief

October 6, 2005

For Dr. Peter Bock, the relief of coming home mixes with the enormity of where he's been.

Here buildings have windows intact. Traffic flows smoothly. Finding food or gas isn't a struggle.He doesn't see glazed eyes or utter destruction. He can rest.

But in the parishes of Louisiana near Lake Pontchartrain where he's spent the last two weeks, things are different.

"I've talked to a few other people since I've been back, and they've said the same thing." Bock said. "It's been kind of a big sense that there is more work to be done, and it's hard to get too excited about trivial things."

Bock returned to Eudora after serving with the Olathe-based relief organization Heart to Heart International, using his medical background to treat the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The trip brought him into contact with the ruins of the Gulf Coast and the people who continue survive and rebuild.


Both medicine and handyman skills play large in Bock's life. At his home, he serves people who have the need for both. He's also been a missionary.

"I went down primarily as a physician, and although my initial instinct was to go down earlier than I did, there was obviously some trepidation to do that because of some stories you heard of the looting or some areas were closed off or you couldn't gas over there," Bock said. "I thought it was best to wait and go with an organization, and I found it was very difficult to find an organization that was ready to take medical volunteers, especially two to three weeks after the disaster."

He went through normal channels to find a service. When nothing panned out, he found Heart to Heart.

"I contacted them and they actually had a small team down there that had been requested directly by West Jefferson Parish, which is a county right next to New Orleans Parish," Bock said. "They've been down their taking care of essential employees for West Jefferson Parish."

Bock helped the utility directors and those clearing the debris to make the parish habitable again.

After he contacted the organization, days passed before he heard anything back.

When he received word he was headed south, he had 24 hours to prepare.

"At that point, the New Orleans airport had been open for a day or two so they flew me into New Orleans airport, which was fairly deserted," Bock said. "There were two little gates open, and the flights were full with volunteers and paid workers coming in from all over the country."

All sorts of people filled the planes and airport, Bock said. Among them was a single mom who left her kids to volunteer. She had prior experience helping disadvantaged people, Bock said.

She brought along an elderly neighbor who had nothing better to do for three weeks. But she was in it for the money, Bock said.

"She made no bones about it," Bock said.

Bock also traveled with a nurse from Wichita and went with her to the fire station where they both were initially stationed.

"On the way to the fire station, you kind of don't know what to expect," Bock said. "There were a lot of military vehicles running around. There was a lot of evidence of tree damage. A lot of it was cleaned up in that area. There were some roofs that were missing -- shingles and some roofs that have caved in."

Bock found more visceral traces of the hurricane.

"There were some ripe smells and ripe odors," Bock said. "We didn't go through the areas that were flooded."

At the fire station, Bock met more people who took time out of their lives to help the hurricane victims. One had a familiar-sounding voice, Bock said.

"There was a mental health worker that arrived from San Diego, then another guy who's voice sounded really familiar. It was Dan Hurst from Darcy and Dan," Bock said.

Hurst is a morning radio personality for KUDL, a Kansas City light rock station.

"I guess he has a lot of missionary background and grew up in Honduras with missionary parents and whatnot," Bock said. "He's not a physician, but he has some medical background."

Hurst did computer work and prescription refills, Bock said.

Bock's responsibilities seemed slow at first.

"In terms of actual patients at that point, we didn't have much to do because they had been taken care of the previous week or two," Bock said.

In the downtime, he went with other volunteers to look for opportunities to help. As he roved nearby Jefferson Parish, he saw vestiges of the human struggle that occurred in the wake of the storm.

"You know the trash from where people lived on the overpasses and stuff and trash was still piled up on there," Bock said. "It's really just a poor and desolate area, and of course it looked even worse with mud and junk everywhere."


From the fire station, Bock, moved to Slidell, a city on the northeast side of Lake Pontchartrain.

"That town was hit really hard, and they had a medical tent they had set up there that they had taken over from a group of volunteers that came in early," Bock said.

When Heart to Heart took over the tent, some things were still in place.

"So we had two to four doctors there depending on the day, and four or five nurses or other helpers. Basically it was an open tent about 40-by-40 feet and a dirt floor," Bock said.

"It was obviously very hot and very noisy because of all the generators brought into the area and there were fans going too, so it was just about a mad house."

At the tent Bock treated patients for dehydration, skin rashes or helped distribute immunizations if they were available during a work day lasting from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 or 6 p.m.

"What was most impressive, I guess, was the stories you hear about the total and utter destruction and the glazed look in their eyes of despair and confusion and kind of a sense of hopelessness to some extent," Bock said. "But even though they had such uncertainty for the future, they were grateful to be alive."

To relieve the tedium of the tent, Bock and others occasionally went on excursions to surrounding neighborhoods.

"We did community runs where we would go to the poorest part of town and see how people were doing, and help those people," Bock said. "They needed help more than anybody, so we would offer some medical care they needed."

Bock and the other volunteers would deliver medical supplies, survival kits or personal hygiene kits donated from throughout the country.

"That was rewarding and people really appreciated that, and again it was incredible hearing their stories," he said.

One story came from a shrimp fisherman who had a cut on the arm. The shrimper, who had lost his truck and house to the hurricane, recounted an amazing story of navigating the storm on his boat, Bock said.

"The water was whirling almost like it was bubbling and boiling," Bock said. "Then he looked to the side and he could see the water rising significantly. Then for 45 minutes, he could see he was in the eye of the storm.

"The other sad part of his story was that he was out shrimping since and he caught shrimp, but he has no place to keep them fresh. He can't get ice, and all the infrastructure to sell the shrimp is washed away, and he can't make money selling them on the street side."

Bock said he met other people with similar stories.

He helped the injured, and found places to stay as he could with the other volunteers.

The week passed, and Bock prepared to return to Eudora.

But as the time came for him to return to the airport, another threat loomed. Hurricane Rita gathered strength off the coast.

"At that point everybody kind of scrambles to different locations, either to higher ground or to Slidell or back to West Jefferson Parish where they could stay at the fire station, which they felt was going to be safe."

Others took it as a call to action.

"Three or four, though, loaded up an RV and headed toward Rita, to be there on the ground floor, so to speak -- to see what they could do to help," Bock said.

They started a clinic in Orange, Texas.


When Rita passed, Bock flew home.

"When you leave or come back, it's almost like a shock to see everything's normal, everything looks OK. You don't see the widespread destruction anymore," Bock said.

Some positive impressions of the Gulf broke through the destruction.

"I think the bright spots are seeing how strong the human spirit is for people to continue in spite of great adversity and all the help that is coming from all the r in terms of donations and volunteers," Bock said.

The camaraderie of the volunteers will be a fond memory, he said.

Although, he's home and far from the ruin, resuming his routine back hasn't been simple.

"The re-adjustment I think has been a little bit tough, because you're running on adrenaline all the time then," Bock said. "When you come back you're tired, so I slept a little bit more than usual, but you have a little deeper appreciation for what you have, but there is also a sense there's a lot of unfinished work down there

"I really enjoyed the experience, and I'd like to go back. My wife's not all too keen on the idea, but we'll see what happens."

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