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Like millions of other people in the Gulf Coast area, Vicki Bergeron and her son Kyle watched early news about Hurricane Katrina confident that it would turn east and not disrupt their lives.
“We didn’t believe it was coming,” confessed 16-year-old Kyle. “I thought it would turn and not hit Louisiana.”
But then the Bergerons, from Louisiana, had other issues on their minds besides the weather. Their attention was on Kyle. He had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in March, a relatively rare form of cancer that affects 500 children a year. Kyle was placed in ICU at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans for three weeks and later received a bone marrow transplant from his twin brother. When the greatest natural disaster in United States history hit, Kyle was in the hospital fighting for his life.
“It hit and the power went out. Our nurses had to sleep there with us. It was hard on everybody,” recalls Kyle.
A mandatory evacuation was conducted of the hospital in the middle of the night when city officials learned many levees surrounding New Orleans were breaking. Kyle was moved to the St. Jude affiliate clinic in Baton Rouge where doctors referred him to St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee.
He was not alone. It is estimated that close to 170 pediatric cancer patients had their critical treatment disrupted by the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina as Gulf Coast hospitals were shut down and evacuated, and more than 100 of them are now being treated by St. Jude and its affiliates, with more arriving daily.
Many of the pediatric cancer patients are being referred from Tulane University and New Orleans Children’s Hospital. Most wound up at St. Jude’s affiliate clinic at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, La. Others were sent to the St. Jude affiliate clinic at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. The most critically ill children—almost two dozen—have been air-lifted directly to St. Jude’s main campus in Memphis, Tenn.
St. Jude, founded by the late entertainer Danny Thomas, is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. No family ever pays for treatments not covered by insurance, and families without insurance are never asked to pay. St Jude is financially supported by ALSAC, its fund-raising organization.
St. Jude’s Chief Medical Officer Joseph Mirro, MD, spent a week in Baton Rouge directing emergency treatment efforts and recently returned to provide additional support and to assess long range plans for supporting the displaced patients.
“We were able to develop the correct response to the Katrina disaster because of a St. Jude internal task force that could project the needs for the displaced children,” Mirro said. “We were able to implement our plan because of our excellent facility in Baton Rouge at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and because of the outstanding and dedicated St. Jude and affiliate staff.”
Mirro emphasized that this has been a cooperative effort, with administrators and medical staff from Tulane University and New Orleans Children’s Hospital working closely with St. Jude to ensure that medical needs are the number one priority in the midst of the ongoing tragedy. St. Jude’s support has included:
The Bergerons are among the families who were brought to Memphis, where they have found immediate housing at the Memphis Grizzlies House, a short-term housing facility for St. Jude patients traveling to Memphis for checkups. When they arrived they were welcomed by St. Jude families and staff and received a special barbecue dinner.
Kyle’s mother was concerned about his fragile stage of health but knew her son needed to continue treatment. “We needed to go somewhere and thank God we had St. Jude,” explains Vicki. “We knew this is where we needed to be. I knew St. Jude would help us get through this.”
Kyle and Vicki consider themselves blessed to have made it through Hurricane Katrina and to be placed at the world’s leading center for pediatric cancer research and treatment.
“They just opened their hearts and arms to us,” says Vicki. “You hear about it, but you don’t know until you walk through the doors that St. Jude is a remarkable place.”
Families of children with hematologic or oncologic diseases from the affected area who need assistance in arranging treatment for their children should contact the Baton Rouge clinic at (225) 763-6337 or the St. Jude Physician Referral Line at (866) 278-5833.
Updated September 26, 2005
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Editor's Note: We regret to inform you that Kyle passed away on December 30, 2006.