A family pulls together in challenging times

Peter Finney Jr    From the roof of the parking garage at Tulane Medical Center, Karen Troyer Caraway glanced down Tulane Avenue and spotted the top of the brick facade of St. Joseph Church, the church special to her mother when she was a student at the old St. Joseph’s Academy.
    The massive, red brick church, built in the 1880s, stood out like a lighthouse, and that would be needed now that Caraway’s city was filling up like a bathtub.
    Just a few hours earlier on Aug. 29, 2005, it seemed as though Katrina had landed its best shot on New Orleans and whiffed. Tulane Medical Center, where Caraway served as an administrator, had sustained only minimal damage, and the 125 patients and 1,250 employees and family members inside the hospital had the benefit of power and a backup generator.
    But the water changed everything.
    “I literally saw white caps – it was like a mini-tsunami because it was going that fast,” Caraway said. “It was rising an inch every five minutes.”
    That’s when Caraway and the hospital’s management team knew the game had changed. Power was out and the temperature was 125 degrees inside the building. The patients, employees and family members – including 100 children, 72 dogs, two birds, two cats and a parrot – had to leave, but now they were marooned.
    “My self-proclaimed motto during this time was, ‘Nobody dies,’” Caraway said.
    The father of a newborn in the neonatal ICU happened to be a helicopter pilot. He led a group to the top of the garage, where they tore down and rearranged lights as landing beacons and painted stripes on the cement to transform the garage roof into a helipad.
    Over the next few days, with helicopters swooping in and then blasting off again, every patient was evacuated safely to hospitals in Louisiana and Texas. One of the pediatric patients was a 6-year-old named Bahir, from Baghdad, who had arrived at Tulane the Thursday before Katrina as part of a medical mission project that Caraway had organized.
    Bahir wound up at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and had open-heart surgery. One of Caraway’s prized possessions is a picture of Bahir, plump and sparkling with rosy cheeks, sitting on an Iraqi military jet on his way home.
    “The picture is on my shelf with my three children,” Caraway said. “I consider him my fourth child.”
    Caraway flew to Lafayette and led a convoy of 20 buses back to New Orleans International Airport so that employees could get out of town. In the midst of helicopter drop-offs, one orange Coast Guard helicopter landed on the tarmac. The pilot jumped out, screaming for medical help for a woman in the throes of labor.
    “In the midst of all this despair and desperation, God sent us a newborn baby girl who was delivered right there on the tarmac,” Caraway said. “God gave us a new baby to remind us of his promise of eternity. That gave me such strength.”
    On St. Joseph’s Day, Caraway and her parents were praying for even more strength. Caraway has been seriously ill for the last 4 1/2 years – a blood disorder led to a kidney transplant, diabetes, anemia and, now, leukemia. She has received the last rites four times.
    During her first stay in ICU, a doctor gave her a “5 percent chance of living.” That night, even though her mother, Patricia Miller Troyer, was going through chemotherapy herself for breast cancer, she refused to leave her daughter’s side.
    “Because if I died she didn’t want me to be alone,” Caraway said. “My little brother slept in the atrium of the hospital every night because if I died, he didn’t want my mother to be alone. Instead of me taking care of my parents who are 75 and 73 years old, they’re taking care of me.”
    Now, her parents are going through trials of their own. Until two weeks ago, her father worked at a job that, in addition to his salary, provided him with two company cars. That job is now gone, and the Troyers, who flooded during Katrina and had major expenses, are worried about losing their house for good.
    “It’s almost as if it’s an internal family Katrina disaster,” Caraway said. “My father has raised us to be very close as siblings. We’re just very lucky to have them as parents and have them raise us to be the adults we all became.”
    And that’s why Caraway, 52, and her mom paid a visit on St. Joseph’s Day to St. Joseph Church.
    “This is where my mom would attend school Mass, and St. Joseph was my beacon of hope during Katrina,” Caraway said. “This is a place of hope and prayer. My experience with Katrina deepened my faith.”
    Caraway, whose husband is Kenner police chief Steve Caraway, said the family is pulling together and will buy their parents a house if need be. That’s what a family does.
    “I’ve thought about dying a lot, and frankly, I’ve thought about taking my own life at times, but through spiritual counseling, God has told me on several occasions there’s a reason for me being here,” Caraway said. “I have only two choices every morning when I wake up. I can spend the day living or spend the day dying. If God wanted me, he could have taken me, but he’s left me here for a reason.”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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