Williston doctor provies free medical care to Katrina evacuees

By Kim Howard
Observer correspondent

When Dr. Gil Theriault returned from the Gulf Coast, he brought back a pen pal connection for his eleven-year-old daughter and dozens of digital pictures.

The pictures capture sporadic moments of two trips – one to Texas and one to Louisiana – during which Theriault provided primary medical care to evacuees of Hurricane Katrina.

“I had never done anything like this before. It was extremely rewarding,” said Theriault, 51, last Saturday at Thomas Chittenden Health Center, where he has worked for five years.

A Williston resident since 1998, Theriault said he was able to treat a wide range of problems while in the Gulf Coast. Chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes were common, according to Theriault. He also treated those with vomiting, diarrhea and skin infections.

Getting to the Gulf Coast required considerable effort. Like several colleagues at the health center, Theriault signed up on Web sites to volunteer. When he did not get any leads, he made about sixty phone calls to Louisiana to find out how to help.

“In most cases they said there was a need, but I would get six phone numbers and I’d make those six calls and it would bring me back to the beginning,” Theriault explained.

It wasn’t until he found a Web site posting by a Galveston, Texas physician that Theriault found his match. Theriault called her cell phone number and the doctor herself answered; the University of Texas at Galveston sponsored him; and within twenty-four hours he had a temporary Texas medical license. On Sept. 11, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, Theriault was on his way to Houston’s George Brown Convention Center.

Theriault said he was “fairly overwhelmed” the first time he walked in. Five city blocks long, one city block wide, and three floors high, the convention center was one of three Houston locations housing approximately 25,000 evacuees in exhibit halls and ballrooms.

Theriault said he was impressed with the Red Cross. A phone bank enabled evacuees to attempt to reach loved ones. Showers were available in assigned 15-minute slots. Food, medicine, eye care, and dental care were provided free to all evacuees.

“I really appreciated the direct care that could be given to the people,” said Theriault, noting the absence of insurance and other paperwork.

Theriault worked twelve to fourteen hours each day, seeing fifty to sixty patients. “It was like being a resident again,” said Theriault of the pace.

Midweek, Theriault went to St. Agnes Church, located thirty minutes outside of Houston, where the Red Cross was distributing individual relief checks for $365 to between ten and fifteen thousand people a day. With temperatures in the high 90s, Theriault attended to many whose health worsened from standing in line in the heat.

Theriault returned from Houston on Sept. 18. Two days later, Louisiana called. On Sept. 27, Theriault was on his way again.

In Marksville, 30 miles outside of Alexandria, Theriault found a different kind of shelter than what he saw in Houston.

“The roof leaked. There was very little air. If you’ll notice, no windows,” he said, pointing to a picture of the cramped and condemned textile factory housing 600 people where Garanimals children’s clothing had once been manufactured.

“The place was infested with fire ants inside the building, lice, the sorts of things you get when people are in close quarters,” Theriault explained.

Theriault soon moved on to the Alexandria Riverfront Convention Center, where he was the only doctor for several days. He returned to Vermont on Oct. 2.

Regardless of shelter conditions, medical supplies were tight everywhere. Theriault had collected supplies from Thomas Chittenden Health Center. Williston Hannaford pharmacy manager Janet Goodell, and her husband, John Goodell, donated money to cover antibiotics that would have cost $400 retail.

“The medicine was well-dispensed; I came back with nothing,” said Theriault. “It was very gratifying to dispense the medicine with no strings attached.”

Theriault has four children, two of whom are students at Williston Central School. He has not talked with them about many details of his trips.

“I’m unable to share any of the evacuees’ stories yet. It’s been too hard. It’s really been too hard to talk about,” he said quietly. “Invariably, almost everybody I talked to lost everything they had. It was that story repeated over and over one hundred times.”

What he did share with his children was how much he liked the people he met.

“The people were just wonderful,” Theriault said. “Even though most of these people had lost everything…they just had a great spirit and a wonderful sense of humor.”

Theriault said he is glad to be home. Yet, he said, “and at the same time, I wish I could be back there helping.”