Team heads to Louisiana in relief trip

The Minnesota group is expecting the unexpected in hurricane-hit areas.

by Jamie VanGeest

In front of a packed bus Paul Bohjanen, an assistant professor of microbiology, advised one of his students about what to do when he arrives in Louisiana.

“You need to be flexible; there’s a lot of things that really need to be done,” Bohjanen said.

Minnesota Lifeline’s second team left Sunday morning to help hurricane evacuees in Lafayette, La.

The team will be setting up clinics to help the 45,000 New Orleans evacuees who went to Lafayette.

Minnesota Lifeline is a mix of students, staff and faculty from the Minnesota Medical Reserve Corps, said Jane Berg, the coordinator of the organization at the University.

All of the team members are associated with the Academic Health Center.

When Minnesota Lifeline’s first team traveled to Lafayette, it received an assignment sheet every day taking the members to different churches and shelters around the town, Bohjanen said.

“You never really know what to expect, one day we went to a Buddhist temple to help Southeast Asian evacuees (from New Orleans),” he said.

Besides the immediate medical needs, the need for trauma counseling was significant.

Many of the evacuees the first team helped had lost their homes. Some had to swim through the floodwaters to get to safety and saw dead bodies floating about the city, Bohjanen said.

Evacuees were also traumatized during their experiences in the Convention Center and the Astrodome in New Orleans, he said.

“A lot of the people there just needed someone to talk to,” Bohjanen said.

Others from the first Minnesota Lifeline team was to return Tuesday, but has encountered difficulties due to Hurricane Rita.

Last week the team was evacuated to Utica, Miss., because it expected a direct hit by the hurricane in Lafayette, Bohjanen said.

“We were very disappointed about being evacuated,” said Bohjanen.

The second Minnesota Lifeline team is composed of 22 people from the University of Minnesota, including six students.

Andrea Petersen, who is graduating from the School of Public Health’s epidemiology program in December, found out about the Minnesota Medical Reserve Corps through an e-mail.

The students will help transport and immunize people. They will also help with general cleanup and setup in the clinics.

“I’ll do whatever I can to help,” Petersen said.

This team will have new challenges due to Hurricane Rita, Berg said.

“Lafayette was hit pretty hard because of flooding,” she said.

The water in Lafayette is infected and the team will deal with illnesses related to that, Berg said.

Each of the public health clinics set up by the team will provide health professionals specializing in mental health, OB-GYN, pediatrics and infectious disease, Berg said.

Minnesota Lifeline is setting up the clinics to treat any of the needs patients have.

“For example, they are seeing people who didn’t have access to their diabetes medication after the hurricane,” Berg said.

Tai Mendenhall, assistant professor of Family Medicine and Community Health, also helped a different organization with mental health needs in New York City during the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

“This time it’s nice because it’s affiliated with the University,” Mendenhall said.

The bus will stop in Rochester to pick up more team members from Mayo Clinic, and will then drive to Lafayette.

The second team will return to Minnesota on Oct. 11, and a third Minnesota Lifeline team will then go to Lafayette.

Before the bus left Coffman Union at 10 a.m. Sunday, team members made final preparations, and family and friends saw their loved ones off.

Karyn Baum, assistant professor of medicine, brought along a bag of coffee and two bottles of wine. The barista at Caribou Coffee gave her a free bag after hearing about Baum’s trip to Louisiana, Baum said.

She joked about eating the coffee grounds if they didn’t have a coffeemaker in Lafayette.

Joe Ofstedal, a primary care physician, said goodbye to his two small children, John and June.

His daughter, June, clutched two brunette dolls to her chest while her mother, Brenda, consoled her.

Tears streamed down her face and she cried, “I want my daddy,” as the bus pulled away from Coffman.