|POST-KATRINA STORM STRESS|
October 18, 2005
TROYLYNN SMITH: I'm feeling more than overwhelmed. I feel just numb inside. All I know is I have tears and I thought I was all cried out.
SUSAN DENTZER: This is Troy Lynn Smith and her mother, Bessie Smith. Their Dallas hotel room is miles away from their damaged homes in New Orleans. Nearly two months have passed since they escaped the flooding sparked by Hurricane Katrina. Both Smiths told us that terrifying experience is close at hand, manifested in nightmares and other signals of post-traumatic stress.
TROYLYNN SMITH: I was dreaming that the water was here, having a nightmare. I can't even hardly lay down and take a nap without dreaming about water, just water, water, water.
SUSAN DENTZER: Bobbie Smith said she'd been re-traumatized just the night before we spoke to her by a late September storm blowing through Dallas.
BOBBIE SMITH: It started lightning and thundering, and then I heard all of this water and I jumped up. I said, "Lisa, get your clothes, we got to go."
SUSAN DENTZER: Demetra Donaldson is a counselor with Telecare, a mental health services provider. She met Bobbie Smith and her daughter several weeks ago.
DEMETRA DONALDSON, Telecare Counselor: She was telling us how, you know, they had to ride on the air mattresses through the water. Gasoline got all over their bodies and in their hair and their hair fell out when they got here. She just was almost was in a "give up" type of state. And so her story for me was just like, I need to help her.
SUSAN DENTZER: In the days up to and following Katrina several hundred thousand evacuees came to Texas. About 25,000 of those, including the Smiths, came here to Dallas.
Along with providing shelter and emergency medical care, the city mounted an aggressive disaster mental health response. Dallas psychiatrist Peter Polatin coordinated the plan based in part on one he helped develop after 9/11. He quickly organized a psychiatric MASH unit to treat evacuees at Dallas' convention center.
DR. PETER POLATIN: There were a lot of fairly severely psychologically traumatized people who had witnessed terrible events. They'd seen dead bodies, they had seen violence. Some of them had been victims of violent activities.
SUSAN DENTZER: Psychiatrist Alan LaGrone of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ran that psych MASH unit in Dallas. He says that, in addition to those troubled by the hurricane and its aftermath, there were also thousands of evacuees with preexisting mental illnesses. Sometimes those were severe ones, like schizophrenia.
DR. ALAN LaGRONE: We saw people who were chronically mentally ill who had been suddenly off their medications. They'd been off of them for a week or two, and suddenly they were starting to have symptoms come back, and they were starting to become psychotic, hearing voices, suicidal or whatever.
SUSAN DENTZER: The goal of mental health responders was to stabilize all these people, get them on medication if needed, and keep them from ending up in psychiatric hospitals. One who was helped that way was Robert Thompson, who's suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since age 18. Now 50, Thompson is currently living at a group home for the mentally ill in Dallas. He told us how he made it from his former group home in New Orleans' devastated Ninth Ward to the city's now-notorious Superdome.
ROBERT THOMPSON: I got my medicine and I had my swimming trunks and I put it in my pocket and I started swimming. I had to swim or drown. So I can swim pretty good -- I must have swam maybe for maybe 30 minutes.
SUSAN DENTZER: After about a week at the Superdome, Thompson, too, was evacuated to Dallas. He arrived badly shaken and delusional. The psych unit at the convention center replenished his antipsychotic medication and steered him to Dallas Metrocares Services, a community mental health agency.
SHANA WATTS, Dallas Metrocare: I guess I'll see you next week.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Okay.
SUSAN DENTZER: Shana Watts is Thompson's Metrocare's caseworker.
SHANA WATTS: When he came here about three weeks ago, he was telling us stories that people were jumping off bridges, that people were getting killed, that he saw a several months lady pregnant jump off a bridge, which I knew through news reports is not true. He was having symptoms or he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome from seeing everything that went on.
SUSAN DENTZER: Watts says Thompson has since improved markedly, by being in a stable environment and getting new medication. Thompson told us he likes his new group home and plans to stay in Dallas and look for work.
ROBERT THOMPSON: I thank the people taking me in and treat me like they treat me in Dallas and helping me out with clothing and food and stuff like that. They nursed me back to health and I appreciate it very much.
SUSAN DENTZER: Even now, clinics run by organizations like Metrocare's are seeing hundreds of troubled patients, both those with illnesses predating the hurricanes and those traumatized by events.
JAMES WAGHORNE: I know you just got out of the hospital.
SUSAN DENTZER: Clinic outreach workers like James Waghorne are visiting apartments and hotels to find other evacuees who also need help.
JAMES WAGHORNE: We want to make sure that they know about our mental health services, and that we're here reaching out to them, and they can get care and we'll actually transport them to and from our clinics.
SUSAN DENTZER: The costs for treating many of these patients may be picked up by Medicaid, under an emergency plan drawn up by the federal government. Still, the long-term expense is certain to strain mental health resources in a state where they were thinly stretched to begin with.
DR. ALAN LaGRONE: As a state, we are forty-eighth or forty-ninth in per capita funding for mental health care. The number is about half of the average of what the other states are providing.
Long after the broken bones, long after the infections have all been cleared, this population is going to have chronic mental health problems, either exacerbation of preexisting conditions or development of new conditions because of the stress of what they went through, period.
DR. PETER POLATIN: We're hopeful that there will be funds from FEMA and elsewhere that will cover some of this, but there is no question that we're going to have to ask people to volunteer and to provide services.
SUSAN DENTZER: Those services may have to include therapy for at least a while for people like Troy Lynn Smith. She told us news she'd gotten that very day about the flooding at her New Orleans apartment only increased her feelings of despair.
TROYLYNN SMITH: Water to the ceiling -- it just hurt my heart. I had so many things that I treasured that were precious to me. I'm not crazy, no. I don't think I need medication, but I would like to talk to somebody and just tell them what I felt and make the pain just go away.
SUSAN DENTZER: With the help of the mental health community in Dallas, Smith and others like her now hope to get back on the road to better mental health.