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He Knows What It Means to Miss New Orleans

For Sujal Shah, MD, Hurricane Katrina has a profound connection to his cancer practice

When the first evacuation call came, Sujal Shah did what most doctors would do—he remained in the hospital with patients who were left behind.

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Sujal Shah, MD. "We take for granted how secure and safe we are, but when that's taken away, people fall apart. Everything falls apart."

Soon, however, a second call came in, more urgent: "You must leave the city. Now."

Outside, Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans. The old levees holding back the Mississippi River got swamped and then broke, flooding vast tracts of the city. Thousands of people waited for rescue on rooftops and in boats; thousands more were left isolated, far away from family and loved ones, by the terrible, rank waters. Dr. Shah, who grew up in a Chicago suburb, had never seen anything like it in his life.

A New Doctor's "Golden Weekend"

He was in New Orleans at Tulane University on a fellowship, and he had grown to love his new city, one of the great music and food capitals of the world. He remembers that even though a hurricane was in the weather forecast, he had looked forward to that weekend in September 2005: "It was one of those golden weekends a new doctor almost never gets, when I didn't have to be at the hospital and finally had a chance to move my stuff into a new place." But all that was quickly forgotten when the rains turned into torrents and New Orleans' fabled Mardi Gras streets became raging, sickening rivers.

Assured that the hospital patients were being taken care of, Dr. Shah drove 10 hours to Atlanta with a few friends in one of the last cars to leave New Orleans. But soon he returned and was quickly deputized into the Red Cross, which had set up a vast infirmary and shelter inside an empty Walmart. By then his adopted city was under martial law.

"I learned how fragile the human psyche really is," he says, talking about his remarkable Katrina experience and how it has shaped him both personally and professionally. "We take for granted how secure and safe we are, but when that's taken away, people fall apart. Everything falls apart."

Photo: Victims of Hurricane Katrina's flooding in New Orleans sheltering on top of a house

Katrina "opened my eyes to many of the things we've been doing wrong culturally and politically," says Dr. Shah. "What I saw was the total collapse of order. You can't imagine it happening in this country—but it did."

Everything They Loved—Gone

In the makeshift infirmary, Dr. Shah treated dozens of patients with hypertension and heart disease who had had to leave their medications behind. He consoled grief-stricken people who had lost homes, neighborhoods, loved ones—everything they knew and had, before Katrina, drawn comfort from. He tried to help those who had grown profoundly depressed after having had to leave behind beloved dogs, cats, and other pets.

The words of the old song, so poignantly sung in the version by hometown hero Louis Armstrong, were never more aching: "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" Tens of thousands of people, many of them Dr. Shah's sudden patients, knew exactly what it means. He did too.

In the larger scale, Katrina and its aftermath showed him "just how much needs to be fixed in our society," he comments. "It opened my eyes to many of the things we've been doing wrong culturally and politically. What I saw was the total collapse of order. You can't imagine it happening in this country—but it did."

However, working intimately with patients when they were desperate for help, and working within a city just as desperate for assistance, gave Dr. Shah a renewed sense of purpose. He completed his fellowship at Baylor University in Austin, Texas ("When it comes to music, Austin's just as amazing as New Orleans"), then returned to Tulane to complete his residency. By then he had decided to focus on cancer.

A Lesson for Cancer Care

"The chaos we had with Katrina mirrors, in some ways, the chaos that cancer patients must feel from their diagnosis and their treatment," he observes. "Cancer patients are faced with a profound sense of their own mortality. New Orleans was faced with the same thing. In a city with so much history, no one could imagine things coming to an end—but the end was in fact close. I saw what that did to people, and I understand what it can do to people who are seriously ill."

Admitting to possessing "a wandering heart," Dr. Shah found an offer to come to northern New England and Norris Cotton Cancer Center irresistible. He's really enjoying Manchester, N.H., he says, where he sees patients four days a week (on Fridays he's at DHMC in Lebanon, N.H.). Because the federal government has designated Manchester as a host city for refugees, it shares, to a degree, an international culture with New Orleans. "I think the refugees are the people who will end up truly saving the city in the end," he says. "Already they're enriching it and helping revitalize it. Manchester is vibrant because of the variety of cultures it has in its people."

The well-traveled doctor adds: "I like getting to know a community, and living there is really the best way."

Even when "living there" means living through a devastating hurricane? "Yes, even then. I used to say, 'New Orleans grows on you like mold.' I really came to love it, so when the city was in its most desperate hour, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. In those hours, that's when you learn who you really are and what you're really capable of."

February 13, 2012