Finance major invests in what matters most— Catherine Wright learns lessons of a lifetime in Houston floods

May 13, 2002

AUSTIN, Texas—Catherine Wright describes helping rescue dozens of bed-bound patients, some in comas, during last summer's killer floods in Houston as "doing what anybody else would do in the same situation."

Catherine Wright
Photo by Marsha Miller

Catherine Wright

The 22-year-old finance major graduates this month before moving back to her hometown of Houston, where she will begin work as a financial analyst for a major energy firm.

But despite her four challenging years at a school with almost limitless choices for gaining an education, it was over her last summer vacation that Wright learned her most valuable lesson about what is truly important in life.

Wright was on a personal mission. Her mother had just received a liver transplant and was in a medically induced coma at Houston's Hermann Memorial Hospital.

Then the lights went out, literally.

On June 10, massive flooding from days of tropical storm Allison inundated most of downtown Houston, knocking out the hospital's main and auxiliary sources of electrical power.

A number of patients, including Wright's mother, were on life support systems that required electricity. With the help of civilian and government craft, the more critically ill patients had to be walked or carried down nine flights of stairs to a ground-floor helipad. Wright's mother was among the first evacuated via Coast Guard helicopter.

Wright, who is set to begin her financial analyst job with Dynergy, a Houston energy firm, after graduation, volunteered to help.

"The hospital was eerie, completely dark, and you are just not used to seeing a hospital without all the lights on," she said. "Along with my boyfriend, my brother and sister-in-law and my father, the nurses taught us how to hand-bag patients.

"The process involved assisting those patients who were on respirators by hand pumping the plastic bags that force air into the unconscious patient's lungs.

"I was really scared because I kept worrying that without electricity, we were going to lose mom. But then I thought, what about those patients who are sicker than mom? What about those who have even less of a chance of recovery than mom?"

Even after her mother was resting safely in another hospital, Wright's job was not complete. She and her boyfriend — they will be married in June — offered to brave flooded streets to drive the doctor who had accompanied her mother's helicopter back to the downtown hospital.

Once they got there, Wright and her future husband started carrying bags of food, water and flashlights up nine flights of stairs to nurses, some of whom had been on duty for 36 hours straight.

"I was very thankful for the actions of all the people who helped while my mom's life was in the balance," she said. "I felt like doing something to respond to their kindness."

It's that kind of thinking that gives Wright her resilience and undying optimism, said Sharron Cherry, a McCombs School of Business undergraduate adviser. "She will be finishing with a very respectable GPA and having completed a very challenging Financial Analyst Program, all during a time when there was this uncertainty about her mother's future health," said Cherry, who is described by Wright "as not only my counselor, but as my friend as well."

Wright "never asked for anyone's pity," Cherry added. "She is an incredible individual with a good heart and a clear understanding of what is important. In the midst of the most challenging times with her mother, she worried about helping others and making sure that everyone was kept up to date to reduce the worries of others."

One year later, Wright can jokingly apply some of what she learned at the business school to the tragic flooding.
"The Friday of the storm, the main generators went out," she said. "Early Saturday morning, the back-ups went down. Later, we discussed (in class) the problem that all of these power sources were located in the basement of the hospital, where they were so vulnerable to the flood waters.

"In retrospect, I learned that that was not a very good risk management system."

For further information contact: Guillermo Garcia, McCombs School of Business (512) 471-3314.