Acadian Ambulance focuses on community and employee care after Hurricane Ida

Organization leaders canceled 50th anniversary celebrations to focus on taking care of their employees and the people they serve


By Megan Wyatt
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

BATON ROUGE, La.  — Alex Richoux picked his load of clean laundry out of a few stacks — some folded, some fresh from the dryer — Friday afternoon in a small, air-conditioned trailer at Acadian Ambulance's FOB, or forward operating base, in Houma.

He and his girlfriend, Kaitlyn Boudreaux, have been working around the clock to treat and transport people in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. The paramedics have hardly had a chance to address the roof and siding damage to their own home in Bayou Blue as they work ensure those in their community are taken care of.

Acadian Ambulance uses forward operating bases so employees have a place to sleep, shower and eat between responses in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
Acadian Ambulance uses forward operating bases so employees have a place to sleep, shower and eat between responses in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. (Acadian Ambulance/Facebook)

"This is just one less thing to worry about," Richoux said. He paused to wipe away tears before continuing. "I am so grateful for Acadian. They're definitely taking care of us. They're feeding us. We got a place to shower and do laundry. I'm so grateful for it."

Angele Davis, a nurse and educator, washed about 40 loads Thursday and Friday for Acadian employees and their families in the small trailer. Her husband, who works as Acadian's operations coordinator for the region, insisted she visit the FOB to take a shower, eat a hot meal and relax in the air-conditioning. She'd spent the days prior pulling out the floors and insulation in their Raceland home after Ida tore through their neighborhood.

"I came here to take a shower and to do my laundry," Davis said. "And people's laundry needed to be done, so I did it. There's a lot of people that are not as lucky as us, so I'd rather let these fellas and ladies go out there and help others instead of have to worry about things like doing laundry or having clean towels to take a shower."

Davis smiled, pointing to a vent on the ceiling of the trailer, before adding, "You know, if you stand right here, you get the air conditioning."

Jim and Sandra Doyle, who work as emergency medical technicians for Acadian in Vernon Parish, finally had time to swing by the base Friday afternoon to pick up laundry, eat a hot meal and clean up. The husband-wife duo, who don't normally work on an ambulance together, began working in Terrebonne Parish and the surrounding areas on Aug. 27 and are scheduled to remain in the area through at least Tuesday.

"We're just here to help folks out," Jim Doyle said. "We've been through this with Laura. We got hit pretty hard over there, and we know that it's miserable. They need our help, just like everybody else around here right now."

The Doyles are one team of about 40 Acadian crews from other regions assisting southeastern Louisiana medics with the post-hurricane emergency response.

Jim and Sandra Doyle were sleeping in the ambulance between calls during the operation, each night alternating who gets to sleep on the stretcher in the back and who has to sleep in the driver's seat up front. They had a cabinet filled with canned goods, jerky, chips, cookies and water. They also lined trashcans for occasions when they were unable to find a working toilet at a hospital or nursing home while transporting patients from hurricane-ravaged facilities.

"We do what we got to do," Sandra Doyle said.

'We just couldn't get to them'

Hurrican Idea response

Medics have been responding to a wide array of calls since Hurricane Ida devastated the bayou communities of southeastern Louisiana on Aug. 29.

"It just breaks your heart when you hear these calls coming in during the storm," said Tracey Gambarella, a paramedic in Vacherie. "We were hearing a lot of people with COVID who were stuck, and their generators are not working, and they're feeling worse. We were getting tons of those emergencies. During the storm, we were hearing people calling out for help, and we couldn't respond to them just because of the sheer damage. It's the first time in my career it took two to three days to respond to some of these emergencies. People were calling out that they were trapped in floodwaters and the water was coming up. We can hear them telling us their roofs were collapsed, and we just couldn't get to them."

Gambarella has worked as a paramedic in Vacherie for more than 16 years. He's responded to emergencies during four hurricanes, including Katrina in 2005. He said Ida was worse for Vacherie than any of the storms he's worked.

"I love my community. I love these people," Gambarella said. "And I just couldn't get to them, and that was one of the heaviest things on my heart."

Calls related to heat exhaustion, heat stroke and carbon monoxide poisoning have been common as most of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes remain without electricity or water. Injuries related to storm cleanup, such as people falling from roofs or cutting themselves with chainsaws, have also been coming in. Perhaps most common, according to medics working in the parishes, are calls related to shortness of breath. Some of the patients are COVID-19 positive, and others have run out of supplemental oxygen they normally rely on.

Daniel Brown, a paramedic in Raceland, said he's also responded to calls that are less urgent and are taxing on the health care system's limited resources. More than one person has called 911 and requested transport to a hospital in an attempt to escape the heat when there wasn't a medical reason to justify it, he said.

"It's tiring, so tiring," Brown said. "Ida just took a very bad problem — two weeks ago we barely had a bed available and very few resources — and now it's just that much worse."

Medics have been regularly transporting patients to Alexandria and Lake Charles because of extremely limited bed availability at hospitals in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

In the week since Ida made landfall, more hospitals in the hardest hit areas have been able to reopen and provide services.

"The ERs are at least opening back up. Their admit abilities are limited. There's still a strain," Brown said. "The one thing that makes this different is that during COVID surges, you'd get off, go home and rest. Now, you get off, go home and clean up."

Medics are used to challenging work, but they've been pushed to their limits for a year and a half — providing more care with fewer resources as coronavirus patients overwhelmed hospitals across Louisiana.

The situation in south Louisiana was the worst they'd seen two weeks before Hurricane Ida hit. Medics were regularly transporting patients for hours to find a hospital with available beds, even occasionally leaving patients on stretchers in hospital emergency departments or treating patients at their homes instead of transporting them to a hospital. They were bracing for the possibility of having to refuse transports altogether for 911 callers with minor medical issues.

COVID's fourth surge

The fourth surge of the pandemic — fueled primarily by the delta variant with outcomes worsened by the state's unvaccinated population — was even worse than last summer's COVID-19 surge prior to Hurricane Laura's arrival in southwestern Louisiana. The latest surge brought a fresh wave of fatigue to paramedics and EMTs who were stretched thin long before the pandemic due to a national staffing shortage. To top it all off, the communities that once expressed gratitude for their work early on in the pandemic no longer seems to support those on the frontlines.

"We almost went from health care heroes to health care zeros," said Jeremy Brown, Acadian Ambulance's quality improvement coordinator for southwest Louisiana. "The morale is just rough. It's hard to keep going and going and going."

It takes a village

Acadian Ambulance management planned to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary with festivities for employees and the public last week. Instead, they scrapped the celebrations in the aftermath of Ida and focused on ensuring their employees were taken care of, as were the patients who rely on them.

"I think our crews are handling everything just remarkably well in the sense that things just keep getting thrown at them, and they just keep responding. They're not giving up," said Jason Cole, Acadian's critical support intervention coordinator. "That's the nature of being a first responder, but part of my role is to help them not be overwhelmed or help them when they are overwhelmed to be able to process things and get them what they need."

FOBs support employees

As Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon as a Category 4 hurricane, Acadian leaders created forward operating bases to provide resources to employees working in the hardest-hit areas.

Each FOB is a miniature village made of portable trailers and tents powered by generators. The Houma base includes bathrooms with showers and toilets, a laundry room, a grill where barbecue and plate lunches are cranked out constantly, coolers with water and sports drinks, gas and diesel tanks for filling up ambulances, and private spaces for counseling. There is a similar base in New Orleans, and a smaller base was created on the Northshore over the weekend.

"We started setting up our own FOBs for disasters," said Trampus Gaspard, Acadian's senior director of logistics. "We relied on the state and FEMA to get us around before and during Laura at the beginning. But now, we're doing it. This way they can take a shower, and they know they can get a hot meal, a bottle of water. The morale is 20 times higher right now than it was post-Laura."

Gaspard arrived in Houma around 11 p.m. Aug. 29 to scope out space for the base. Exhausted, he eventually fell asleep a few hours later on a concrete slab outside of the West Houma Recreation Center.

Amos Mosely, facilities manager for the Terrebonne Parish recreation district, found Gaspard and his colleague while assessing damage in the hurricane-ravaged community on the morning of Aug. 30.

Within a few minutes, Mosely handed over the keys to the recreation center and welcomed them to set up the base in the parking lot. Mosely knew it would be weeks or months before people could return to the facility, which had significant water damage after winds from the hurricane shattered the windows.

"They have units coming in from everywhere to do laundry, to get food, to fill up between calls," Mosely said. "It's just a great setup and great to have them in the heart of Terrebonne Parish."

A team boarded up the broken windows, mopped up the water and connected a generator to the recreation facility last week. About 100 cots were being set up with pillows and bedding in the gym Friday afternoon to provide a cool, comfortable place for Acadian employees and their families to sleep until power and water was restored to their homes in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

Acadian Ambulance stations in southeastern Louisiana, like most homes and even some hospitals, have largely been without electricity and water since the storm hit. Some have also been damaged. Operating bases like the one in Houma provide basic resources — like running water, electricity and fuel — for weary medics between calls.

Trampus said the operating base will remain in place for as long as necessary to ensure employees and their families have access to basic resources.

'They realize they're not alone'

Mark Fryou and Kevin Brennan, who both retired from Acadian Ambulance last month, volunteered last week for the company where they spent decades as employees.

"We'd talked about doing volunteer work eventually," Brennan said. "I said, 'It looks like we'll be doing volunteer work sooner than we thought for our own people.'"

Brennan and Fryou took care of their families' needs before distributing food, water and tarps to Acadian employees across southeastern Louisiana. They also helped to put tarps on roofs of employee homes alongside the company's chief medical officer, Dr. Chuck Burnell.

"These medics just inspire the heck out of us," Fryou said. "Some of these people haven't been to their houses or know if their houses are damaged or destroyed, and they're still on an ambulance. You don't ever hear them complaining."

Hurricane Ida damaged homes of about 80 Acadian employees in southeastern Louisiana.

Brennan and Fryou met up with Gambarella, the Vacherie paramedic, Friday afternoon on the side of a highway in Wallace to drop off a burger, sausage po'boy, water and sports drinks.

Gambarella expressed gratitude, saying the work has been exhausting, but his morale has been good because of the company's efforts to care for his physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Hurricane Ida damaged the roof of his modular home in Thibodaux, which Gambarella recently moved into with his wife and 12-year-old son. They hadn't even paid their first monthly note on the home before Ida tore through.

Acadian employees tarped the roof last week while Gambarella worked.

"The better we take care of our medics, the better they can take care of the community and the patients," said Randall Mann, Acadian's vice president of communications and marketing. "While they're taking care of patients on a truck, we're tarping their roofs."

Gambarella said Acadian doesn't just take care of employees after a major disaster. The company also took care of his mental health when work became too emotionally draining a few years ago.

Gambarella said he couldn't stop thinking about a call involving a mother who allegedly killed her two children. He took about two years off to work through the post-traumatic stress that plagued him. A paramedic in a different region of Louisiana killed himself a week before Gambarella sought help for his own depression and suicidal thoughts.

Since then, Gambarella has shared his own experience with his colleagues, advocating for them to prioritize their own health and wellbeing.

"When you tell your story to someone and see their faces change, you realize you're not alone. They realize they're not alone," Gambarella said. "It makes the biggest difference in the world."

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(c)2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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