2006-02-11 / Top News

Nurse Karen Weersing Aids Gulf Coast Relief Efforts

She Provides Medical Care from Ship
By Karen Gould

At right: Karen Weersing took this photograph while on her volunteer mission trip to the Gulf region. The scene shows some of the devastation caused from hurricanes Katrina and Rita and is of a washed-out causeway between Ocean Springs and Biloxi, Mississippi. At right: Karen Weersing took this photograph while on her volunteer mission trip to the Gulf region. The scene shows some of the devastation caused from hurricanes Katrina and Rita and is of a washed-out causeway between Ocean Springs and Biloxi, Mississippi. When Karen Weersing saw the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita on television, she wanted to help. She searched the Internet for information on assisting hurricane survivors, then signed up to volunteer with the United States Health and Human Services Administration in October. By November 27, she was in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where she was met by a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) worker at the airport. Within an hour, she arrived at her home for the next month, a Carnival Cruise Line ship named Holiday.

“My goal,” she said, “was just to take care of people, whatever their needs were, whether it was physical or emotional. I was there to help.”

On board ship, she became a part of a medical team that included three nurses and two doctors. One of the doctors worked in public health and the other was in the private sector.

Volunteers were asked to sign up for two-week stints, but after the first two weeks flew by, Mrs. Weersing, a registered nurse at the Mackinac Island Medical Center, decided to sign up for an additional twoweek stay.

The ship and its crew are leased to the federal government to house refugees from the devastation, Mrs. Weersing said, and approximately 1,200 people made homeless by the hurricanes were living there.

The original plan, she said, was to move people into the community to find doctors and to close the ship’s medical facilities by the end of December. The problem was the people on board had no transportation to get to other doctors, or they had jobs and needed to be at work. When Mrs. Weersing left, she said 800 people remained on board. By early February, she said, approximately 300 people still live on the boat.

Mrs. Weersing said she did not like the plan because she didn’t like the concept of working to close down the clinic.

“That’s what we were there for, to help people,” she said.

“A lot of people there had lost absolutely everything. There were lots of emotional and mental problems caused from what people had been through, a lot of sleeping problems.”

There was a team of mental health professionals also assigned to the ship, she noted.

One interesting case she dealt with involved a man who had robbed a bank. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago but had received no treatment for it. One day, Mrs. Weersing said, he came to the clinic because he could not breathe. The medical team wanted to send him to a local hospital, but he balked at the plan and was apprehensive about going. When the clinic could not match his name with his Social Security number, the man admitted he had been living under an assumed name and had robbed a bank years earlier.

Mrs. Weersing said they talked him into admitting who he was so he could get the care he needed. The Federal Marshals looked at the case and decided not to prosecute him for the robbery because of his illness and because he’d kept his record clean for 30 years. Mrs. Weersing helped get the man into a hospice program as an indigent.

“Otherwise,” she said, “I don’t know what would have happened to him.”

She added, “He was just one of the interesting people on the ship.”

Finding jobs, housing, and transportation for the ship’s residents, Mrs. Weersing said, has been difficult for FEMA, which has an office on board.

“All along the coast, and 20 miles inland, it’s all gone,” she said. “Nothing’s there.”

People with working utilities on their property were offered the use of a FEMA trailer for 18 months. FEMA worked with others to house them in emergency trailer parks called egg sites.

“The reason they were called egg sites is because the trailers are all white and look like little eggs,” Mrs. Weersing explained.

She said the victims also were offered one-way airline tickets to move anywhere in the United States.

In New Orleans, she said, “It’s just unbelievable the magnitude of the devastation they’re dealing with down there. Buildings are just gone. You can see slabs of cement where homes were.”

But the devastation, she added, extends from the Florida panhandle into Texas.

“It’s going to be years and years before everything is cleaned up and beginning to be back to normal,” she said.

Mrs. Weersing said she left the gulf region December 23 and returned to Mackinac the day before Christmas.

She is married to Don Weersing, the Island’s physician, and together they have eight children, two of whom still live at home.

“My husband was just so supportive of me,” Mrs. Weersing said. “In fact, he was kind of jealous he couldn’t get time off to go.”

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