Originally created 09/17/99

Babies go back to Savannah



Charlene Perez dropped her off early Tuesday morning and was there Thursday afternoon to pick up McKenzie Hamm and take her back to Savannah.

"Hey darling, ready to go?" she asked McKenzie's mother, Donna.

"You know it," mom said, grinning.

McKenzie was one of the 14 neonatal intensive care patients evacuated from the Savannah area to Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center. Joining the stream of returning evacuees were 73 nursing home patients from Life Care in Hilton Head, who spent two days at University Hospital riding out the storm.

"We hope it doesn't take eight hours to get back," as it did coming up, said Life Care executive Kathy Ruiz.

Another 44 patients at Columbia-Augusta Medical Center will go home today .

"They're concerned the traffic going back will be almost as bad as the traffic going up," said Columbia-Augusta Chief Executive Officer Michael Kerner.

With Hurricane Floyd past, McKenzie and six other babies were loaded into ambulances and sent home. Going with them was another evacuee, respiratory therapist Victoria Krepps, who fled to her hometown, Augusta, on Sunday and joined the transport team on the way back to her job at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah.

Boarding the ambulance to care for McKenzie and the other babies on the way down meant leaving her car behind, however.

"If anyone's offering a ride from Savannah back..." she joked.

Though she came up to Augusta on a ventilator, McKenzie was well enough at the end to be moved to a patient floor, where her 6-year-old brother Thomas got to be around her for the first time since she was born 5 1/2 months ago.

She immediately latched onto his finger as he stood by the bed gazing adoringly at her.

"She won't let go of my finger," he said happily.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which at one point held 38 babies -- two over capacity -- began to empty a little in the afternoon as portable incubators rolled in and staff prepared the babies to return home.

At one point, only one neonatologist was covering two different units in Savannah, but as staff has returned, so can the babies, said Linda Wise, neonatal transport team coordinator. Five babies will stay behind, four of them for surgery they could not get in Savannah, Mrs. Wise said.

Though the staff only had them a few days, a bond was formed, and the good-bye was bittersweet, said nurse Cindy Parr.

"Because I want them back with their parents," Ms. Parr said.

And though it proved not to be the storm of the century, the two-day detour to Augusta was worth it for both staff, children and families, Ms. Krepps said.

"I definitely think they made the right decision," she said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.