After Katrina: Cecile Tebo

How ex-debutante Cecile Tebo became head of New Orleans’s mental health SWAT team.

By Maryn McKenna
Tebo visits a tent city where many of New Orleans' mentally ill camped out after Katrina. (Photo: Rebecca Greenfield)

"I was paralyzed — dark, so dark," she says now, hugging herself in her restored living room. "I couldn’t go to work. If we’d had a bridge jumper — we had plenty of those — I would have taken his hand and said, ‘I’m coming with you.’ I couldn’t give anyone hope." One day, her middle sister called from North Carolina. "I saw the city on CNN," Tebo remembers her saying. "It looks great! It’s so good to know you’re okay."

Lying in bed, Tebo brooded. In the middle of the night, she got up, turned on the computer, and banged out a letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"I want the word to get out," she wrote. "We are desperate, depressed, anxious, angry… No, we are not okay."

The next day, she found a doctor and got a prescription for antidepressants. And then she went back to work.

A Tough Line of Work

The crises that Tebo and her team face daily would be hard enough if the mentally ill were their only problem. But in post-K New Orleans, nothing is that simple. Not only are there more sick people, but there are fewer places to take them.

Charity Hospital, a massive Art Deco tower just outside the French Quarter, reserved some 150 short-stay and in-patient beds for the mentally ill. All that is gone: Charity was flooded and closed by the state. The only alternative is the rest of the city’s overloaded emergency rooms.

By federal law, patients who enter an ER are guaranteed care until they can be released or transferred. Which means, first, that in a crowded ER, a mentally disordered patient is an unwelcome arrival who might tie up a gurney for days. And second, that Tebo and her team routinely face hostility not just from the patients they rescue but from the rescuers they take them to.

Early in November, about a week after Tebo’s promotion to her unit’s top position, she and a volunteer are trying to subdue an agitated, shaven-headed man in his 30s. Clutching a toddler, the man’s sister explains: He is a schizophrenic. He had been treated by a doctor at Charity. He has not seen his doctor, or taken any psychiatric medication, since the storm. Tebo and her partner secure him in the van. The man curls up tight, eyes squeezed shut, chanting softly to a beat only he can hear: "You fucking me man, you jail me die man."

"Oh my Lord," Tebo whispers over the seat back, "this guy is a time bomb."

At Louisiana State University Interim Hospital, Tebo and her partner fast-walk their patient into the back of the emergency department — and collide with a queue of street cops waiting to deliver three other mentally ill patients.

"We’re on diversion," a nurse snaps at them.

Tebo takes a deep breath. "First, diversion is for ambulances, and we are the police," she says, fighting to keep her voice even. "Second, this patient has a legal right to care. And third, unless you lock your doors, we are going to keep coming."

To be fair, the ER is full. After 45 minutes, a nurse accepts their patient. Walking out to the van, Tebo shakes her shoulders like a horse trembling at a fly.

"I am just not used to being hated," she says.

"She Keeps Coming Back"

Most days are not this hard, but few could be called easy. The unit is chronically short of help. Tebo butts heads with older officers unused to having female civilians play such a prominent role. And few patients go quietly.

"She’s been fought with, spat on, had her hair pulled, had her glasses broken," says Morrie Sandler, an ER physician who is one of her volunteers. "She keeps coming back."

"This job has cured me of the I-wants: I want more of this, I want more of that," Tebo says. "Sometimes we forget what we have, but I come home off the streets and I realize I have been given so much. It keeps me in check."

It is a busy November morning at the historic Parkway Bakery & Tavern. In a moment so meta it could only happen in New Orleans, a crew from the Food Network is documenting the lunch counter’s resurrection from the waters that surged out of nearby Bayou St. John — while, in the middle of the bayou, cameramen are filming a submerged house, sunk by the producers of the Katrina police drama K-Ville to recreate the storm.

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