From Storm to Surgery
One man’s struggle to live

BY LINDSEY ANNE FLEMING
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BARBARA GRIFFIN


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Delmon McKinney in the hospital
Evacuee Delmon McKinney recuperates from exploratory surgery at WVUs Ruby Memorial Hospital.
ew Orleans evacuee Delmon McKinney anxiously sat in a waiting room at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W. Va., in the fall of 2005. He had made it through Hurricane Katrina. Now his thoughts of survival rested solely on the outcome of an operation he was about to undergo.

“I ain’t never been afraid of nothing in my life, but this … this is something,” McKinney said.

In West Virginia, 53-year-old McKinney received something he hadn’t had in years — immediate medical attention.

McKinney told his new doctors that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer in New Orleans. But after waiting in long lines at overcrowded hospitals and clinics he had given up on getting help.

“You’re waiting and dying, dying and waiting,” McKinney said.

Doctors working at the West Virginia military base where New Orleans evacuees were living, ordered X-rays and saw something in his upper abdomen that could have been simply a bloated stomach or a more serious problem, McKinney said.

They sent him to Ruby Memorial Hospital, where Dr. Riaz Cassim decided to take a look inside.

On the night before his surgery, McKinney tried to prepare himself mentally for whatever the outcome might be.

"I hope they get it all out. I've come too far. I'm going to give medical science a chance," McKinney said.

He had come a long way.

Escape from the flood

Like many New Orleans residents, he underestimated the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. So, as he had done countless times before, he boarded up the windows, stocked food and water, and watched family and friends drive away. He was sure
they would all return home in a week or so.

Hurricane Katrina proved to be a different breed of storm. McKinney said the hurricanes he’s known almost always began at night. Katrina gathered its strength in broad daylight, bending tree branches and pelting roofs with rain.

“When you see it coming to the third (porch) step that’s when you say, ‘ When is it going to stop?’” McKinney said.

Katrina forced McKinney and his long time friend Elizabeth James, whom he calls his sister, onto their second-story porch. They were trapped there for six days, sharing their canned food with the other four families left on the block. They cooked on barbeque grills and to retrieve military rations McKinney waded through the streets which had become giant cesspools of chemicals and human waste.

“I had to go into the water to get that,” he said. “It was survival.”

Finally a boat came and took them to the Louis Armstrong International Airport.

“The city could have better prepared,” McKinney said.

Leaving New Orleans

For 12 hours, McKinney and James watched trucks, buses, and car bring loads of Katrina victims to the airport.

Weary and wet, with infected wounds on his legs McKinney stood inside, waiting for a flight to be announced.

McKinney listened as a military flight attendant announced a plane headed to West Virginia. He had a choice to make - take the flight that many in front of him had declined, or wait until something closer to home came along. Many at the airport were sure they would be able to return home soon and didn't want to stray too far.

James was skeptical, but McKinney made up his mind quickly.

"I said to her, 'that man said fly, let's go'," McKinney recalled.

They got aboard and waited almost 45 minutes for the seats to fill and the plane to take off.

On the ground in West Virginia, McKinney and James were welcomed with cups of hot coffee and a change of clothes.

"From the worst comes the best," McKinney said of the experience.

And he knows how bad things can get.

Leaving the past

McKinney spent two years on the streets of New Orleans.

After a divorce McKinney lost his home and survived by taking odd jobs and moving from shelter to shelter, he said.

“New Orleans people step over you if you fall down,” he said of life on the streets.

McKinney also had some run-ins with the law. Court records show he pleaded guilty to battery charges 1997.

Life was never that easy for McKinney.

As a child, he grew up around bricklayers and contractors. Occasionally, they would offer him odd jobs for $20 to $30, which was big money at the time, he said.

As an adult, he worked on different crews, building houses and repairing roofs. He also spent 20 years driving a tow truck for the city of New Orleans before being transferred to the parks department, he said. He lost that job.

He’s not going back to New Orleans to live, but he might go back to check on his mother’s and grandmother’s grave sites, he said.

His two daughters and his grandson are scattered across the country, he said.

“I’m 53, I’m going to go back and start rebuilding, for what?” McKinney asked.

A new beginning

“I'm relinquishing my New Orleans citizenship and becoming a mountaineer,” he said. “(The) people of West Virginia are the best emergency relief I've ever received.”

Following his surgery, his doctor gave him some of the best medical news he’s ever heard.

What McKinney believed to be colon cancer turned out to be a small hernia.

“You’ll be fine by the first of December,” Dr. Cassim told him.

“Ah man, that makes me happy,” McKinney said. “Thank you Jesus. At home I would still be on the waitin’ list. … oooooe it feels good here.”

Barbara Griffin contributed to this story.