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Evacuees Find Medical Care and New Home

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Nancy Cooper sits in her apartment in Shawnee. Cooper came to Kansas City last year after Hurricane Katrina so her son could receive treatment for injuries he received in a car crash.

By Maria Carter

Kansas City, MO – Last year 24 patients and family members left Children's Hospital in New Orleans and boarded a plane bound for Kansas City. Many families returned to New Orleans or joined other family members after receiving the needed medical care at Children's Mercy Hospital, but some families are now calling the Kansas City area home. KCUR's Maria Carter has more about that night and why one family chose to stay in Kansas City.

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One year ago, Nancy Cooper and her son Anthony arrived in Kansas City on a C-130 cargo plane. Anthony was among two dozen children were evacuated from Children's Hospital in New Orleans after the levees broke, arriving at Children's Mercy late at night a few days after Hurricane Katrina. Cooper says she didn't care where she was going, as long as there was medical care for her son.

Nancy Cooper: My child had been in a terrible car accident. He had an external fixator. It was something that stuck out to be able to hold his hip in place. I trusted that we were being sent to a good hospital.

Anthony, now 15, had been in the hospital for about two months when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. Cooper's other sons, Raymond and Fernando, fled to Alabama with her sisters. Cooper says that made the trip to Kansas City more difficult.

Nancy Cooper: Not knowing what was going to happen. I mean I was in a different state. I didn't no know one. It was scary. It was hard.

It was a hard night at the hospital too. Doctors, nurses, and other staff only had a few hours to prepare for the rapid influx of ill patients. They got beds ready and set up a triage system to assess how the patients, who arrived with scanty medical records, should be treated. Child Life specialist Carolyn McIntire says it was stressful for the staff, but even more so for the children.

Carolyn McIntire: They were uprooted from there normal medical caregivers and providers. They were separated from their family members in an already stressful environment. They had the windows covered so they hadn't seen out the windows. So they had the trauma of visually seeing what the devastation was that was around them as they went from the hospital to the airport. So they had increased stress on top of the already normal hospital stress.

McIntire, like many staff members, worked a long night, tending to the needs of patients and families for 36 hours straight.

Carolyn McIntire: One of the patient's was having such a difficult time adjusting. And it was a patient that was alone and trying to calm the patients and finally being able to do that and soothe them and get them to sleep. It was just almost I don't want to step away because if they wake up, I've figured out exactly what's going to work.

It's now a year after that difficult night. Most of the families flown to Kansas City have left, returning to New Orleans or joining friends and family in other parts of the country. But a few families have started rebuilding their lives here. Nancy Cooper sits in her airy, three bedroom apartment in Shawnee, tucked behind a massive, suburban shopping center.

Nancy Cooper: When we came here. I loved it because I had no vehicle at the time. So I said, you know, Wal-Mart and everything else is just right there and I'll be able to walk. I really like the area so I was very pleased.

Cooper now has a car, one of three offered to her family. Clothes, furniture, videogames, and cleaning supplies are just a few of the things donated to the family. Cooper says she's amazed and thankful for the generosity but life's tough for the divorced, stay-at-home mom. Anthony, a teenager with dirty blond hair, must use a wheelchair to move about and rely on his mother for help with daily tasks like bathing. A tutor is sent several times a week by the school to deliver the ninth graders lessons. Nancy Cooper says with all this that the only friends she's made are the neighbors across the hall.

Nancy Cooper: It's been hard. I'm not going to tell you it doesn't depress me. I mean of course it depresses me, you know. But if I just fall, then who's going to take care of them. I'm here by myself.

Cooper moved to New Orleans from Honduras when she was 12 but says New Orleans is home. She still has a house there on New Orlean's West Bank. The house suffered storm damaged but escaped the flooding. Her sister's family is living there now, and Nancy Cooper says she has no idea when, or if, she will be able to return.

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