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Mission in Mississippi

WAVELAND, Miss. - Larry Tucker logs long, hectic hours in his hospital's busy emergency room.

Sipping a Diet Coke-his only breakfast-as the early-morning shift of doctors and nurses hurried by in wrinkled green scrubs, the Duke registered nurse and trauma coordinator admitted he is on the job almost 20 hours a day and sleeps on a cot next to his desk.

"If the radio goes off in the middle of the night, all I have to do is reach up and grab it," Tucker said.

But Tucker's hospital is no ordinary facility and his job, no ordinary emergency room post.

A far cry from Duke, Tucker has spent the last eight days-and nights-working in front of an abandoned strip mall in Waveland, Miss., a town ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Located in a Kmart parking lot ringed with gutted cars, the hospital consists of a few tents and transport trucks staffed by North Carolina volunteers, including nine Duke nurses and paramedics.

All that remains of the Kmart is a shell of a building filled with debris: broken gumball machines and collapsed shelves in pools of stagnant water left after the floodwaters receded. Two payphones remain standing outside-but both are dead.

A body was pulled out of one of the strip mall stores just last Friday, Tucker said.

In front of the devastated structure, however, the hospital is a beacon of hope for the thousands of local residents who lost homes, belongings and loved ones in the storm.

And with a church group distributing supplies and meals at the other end of the parking lot and the Red Cross offering tetanus shots nearby, the clinic has become the anchor of a burgeoning relief compound.

Approximately 300 patients come to the field hospital each day, arriving mostly on foot. Some wander over from the meal and supply distribution area, lugging boxes of bottled water, diapers and canned food.

"We haven't named it yet, but I loosely refer to it as 'Camp Katrina,'" said Tucker, shifting his sunglasses as he surveyed the bustling operation.

Holli Hoffman, North Carolina bioterrorism hospital preparedness coordinator, said she knew the crew had come to the right place when she spotted the old Kmart slogan-"the Saving Place"-on the desolate storefront.

"I was out there cleaning up the rubble, and I looked up and saw it. I got chill bumps and said, 'This is where we need to be. This is where God wanted us to be,'" Hoffman said with an approving nod toward the building.

Most of the hospital's medical staff-members of State Medical Assistance Teams, which are deployable units of volunteers drawn from various North Carolina hospitals-had not worked together before traveling to Waveland. But they formed quick bonds as they welcomed storm victims.

Most patients have minor injuries-cuts, scrapes and fractures-and many are becoming regular visitors.

"They are frequent-flyer, repeat customers who come by every day-more for reassurance and 'thank yous,'" Tucker said. "If a normal ER handled 300 patients a day, the entire nursing staff would quit."

Combined with the clinical elements of the hospital-IV bags, stethoscopes, pills-evidence of human suffering and compassion linger on faces and in conversations in the hospital's tents.

Most patients sit quietly on cots in the examination area, bleary-eyed and flushed from the hot Mississippi sun. Children clutch teddy bears given to them in the triage tent. Medical personnel move from feeling swollen glands and bandaging skinned knees to holding the hands of shocked storm victims.

Pausing as she disinfected a wound on a young boy's foot-he stepped on a rusty nail in the rubble left by the storm-Debbie McPherson, an R.N. from Durham Regional Hospital, a part of Duke University Health System, said helping patients cope with loss is as much a part of her job as sticking a Band-aid on a cut.

"A lot of them cry," McPherson said. "You touch them, you hug them, you let them know you care about them."

David Kingery, Trinity '76 and an orthopedic doctor from Charlotte, said listening to the victims is an important part of the doctor-patient relationship.

"All I try to do with the people I'm working on is ask how their home is, how their family is," said Kingery, a Hattiesburg, Miss., native.

The victims who have visited the hospital said the North Carolina staff offered them assistance they might otherwise never have received.

In a voice tinged with a mixture of fatigue and hope, Lynne Farve, a resident of nearby Bay St. Louis, said her family had to hitch a ride from the shelter where they are living to get to the relief services in the parking lot.

"My daughter-in-law and my son both needed to go over there to get shots and fix minor injuries," Farve said, gesturing to the field hospital. "We are thankful for that because we still have problems with sanitary conditions."

Servicing the patients' needs, Tucker explained, necessitates making do with what is available- which isn't always much. Though Med-1, the hospital's state-of-the-art mobile unit, is equipped to handle sophisticated medical procedures, the staff relies on the assistance of local residents and businesses as well as do-gooders from across the nation to keep the hospital functioning.

"Durham called the other day and asked, 'What do those people need?'" Tucker said as he carried his church-supplied lunch through the maze of people and supplies in the parking lot. "I said, 'Whatever you can send.'"

And Tucker said help has come from surprising sources.

A surgeon from Michigan showed up one day with a vanload of supplies. The medical crew also obtained a CT scanner from a Mississippi state trooper. To make space for medical helicopters to land, the military-which is stationed a few miles away at Stennis International Airport-cleared the parking lot of cars, painted a red "H" on the asphalt and strung a streetlight on a pole to help guide the choppers.

Local stores with salvaged pharmaceutical supplies are also helping augment what the medical team was able to transport to Mississippi-a trip that involved three blown tires and a police escort through Atlanta, Ga., pharmacist Robert Beddingfield explained.

"The Kmart district manager stops by twice a day," said Beddingfield, a resident of Pinehurst, N.C.

So many extra pharmaceuticals have poured into "Camp Katrina" that the crew had to build plywood shelves inside the trailer that houses the supplies.

"They are running what is the equivalent of a neighborhood, a hospital pharmacy and a critical care pharmacy rolled into one," Tucker said.

Though most of the hospital staff are staying for only one week at a time, many are planning repeat trips to Waveland to keep offering assistance.

Kingery, a member of the second staff deployment to the site, said watching the first group of personnel leave the parking lot proved how affecting "Camp Katrina" was on the North Carolina volunteers.

"You saw big middle-aged guys crying, getting on the bus to leave because they felt like they were able to make a difference, because they were overwhelmed by the suffering," Kingery said.

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