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Premature babies in Katrina's path torn away from parents

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brothers born four months early were sent to New Orleans a month before Katrina
  • With Katrina approaching, their parents were ordered to leave the city
  • The boys' ambulances came under fire as they were taken out of New Orleans
  • Once the family was reunited, they were torn apart again by medical needs

See iReport's past-meets-present photography project to see what the region looks like five years after Hurricane Katrina.

(CNN) -- Ordinary Americans made such extraordinary efforts to get people out of New Orleans in the chaos of Hurricane Katrina that it's somewhat shocking to remember that, before the storm, some people were evacuated to the Louisiana city, not out of it.

Tiny premature babies Tyson and Landon Graham were among them.

They were born four months early, weighing less than two pounds each. A third in the set of triplets, Preston, lived only a day and a half.

But Tyson and Landon managed to hang on, and two and a half weeks after they were born in July 2005, in Biloxi, Mississippi, they were transferred to New Orleans Children's Hospital.

Their parents, Laura and Jared Graham, came with them, but as Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans, they were told they had to leave -- while their babies, kept alive by ventilators, had to stay.

Read about another mother's separation story

It was a wrenching moment for them, Laura remembers. Tyson had perforated intestines and they were "waiting for him to die," she says.

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"If our child is going to die, we want to be here," she told the hospital.

But the evacuation of New Orleans was mandatory as the hurricane loomed, and the Grahams were warned they could be arrested if they stayed.

"They said, 'You want to leave New Orleans because the storm is coming here,'" she recalls. She and her husband had been so focused on their children they hadn't even heard the hurricane was on its way. "We had been in the hospital. We hadn't seen the news."

Their first thought was to drive back to Biloxi.

"It was really hard" to leave her babies, she says. "We didn't know if they would be alive" when they got back.

And once they got home to Biloxi, where Jared was stationed at an Air Force base, they were told to flee even farther, because Biloxi was in the path of the storm. The drove on to Georgia, where Jared had relatives.

Once Katrina made landfall, Laura and Jared lost touch with their living sons -- and, horrifyingly, found that Preston's tiny body was lost in the storm.

"All the phone lines were down in New Orleans. We were like, 'What happened to our babies?'" Laura says.

"A nurse whose cell phone sometimes worked would call us and tell, 'They're transferring them,' then would call back and say, 'No, they're keeping them here,'" the young mother says.

Children's Hospital fared better than some others in New Orleans. It's on relatively high ground and its generator was on the roof, enabling helicopters to refuel it. But it was still no place for premature babies in Tyson and Landon's shape.

Laura finally heard they were being sent to Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, 70 miles away.

"We called them and they said, 'No, they're not on our list,' and I was like, 'Where are my babies?'" she remembers, still sounding frantic five years later as she recounts the story. "Then I called back and they said 'They're on our list now.'"

Only later did Laura learn that her son Tyson had been kept alive during the ambulance ride to Baton Rouge by nurses who fought to keep his heart and lungs working -- and that the ambulances had been shot at by unknown assailants as they left the city.

The boys were among 140 premature babies the staff of Woman's Hospital brought out of New Orleans in the four days after the levees broke. The hospital admitted 42 babies in the first 14 hours after the storm hit, and more kept coming. At the peak, 53 nurses were working per shift, up from a normal staff of 27.

Once they found out where their boys were, Laura and Jared Graham hit the road in a car loaded with food and supplies.

On the way, Laura's mother phoned to tell her a doctor had called to say Tyson needed surgery. Laura's mother had told them to wait while she tried to contact Laura -- much to Laura's horror. She knew there was no time to waste.

So did the doctor.

"The doctor said, 'I am not calling for permission. I am calling to let somebody know,'" Laura's mom told her.

Laura and Jared had been separated from their boys for a week before they were finally reunited.

"When we got to Tyson he had been cut in half across his stomach -- but he was alive," she says. "And Landon was doing pretty good.

At about the same time, Preston's remains were found.

"His body was pretty hammered," Laura says, but at least they had the remains for burial.

Soon after they arrived in Baton Rouge, Jared was ordered by the Air Force to go to Utah, his base in Biloxi having been badly damaged.

Laura ended up staying in a room at Woman's Hospital to be with her babies.

She was still there in October, when she found out her sons were going blind. Woman's Hospital planned to send them to a specialist in Michigan, but as they were getting ready, they found Tyson was not stable enough to travel.

"They said, 'We have to send Landon but not Tyson,' and my knees buckled," Laura says. She had to choose which child she would stay with.

She chose to go to Michigan with Landon.

"The staff at Woman's was incredible. We knew Tyson would be taken care of," she said.

But just before she left Baton Rouge, she got a surprise. The hospital let her hold her babies for the first time.

"The first time I ever got to hold Tyson was when he was four months old," she says. While she had the little boy in her arms, hospital staff brought Landon to her. "I got to hold both of my babies for the first time ever."

Laura and Landon went to Michigan. Tyson followed, and by Christmas of 2005, the Graham family was reunited in Utah, where they have lived ever since.

Doctors were not able to save either boy's sight, and the brothers continue to have severe difficulties. Both have feeding tubes, and Landon has been suffering from long seizures for nearly a year.

But next week, both of them are getting ready for their first day of school -- Landon in a special education class, and Tyson in regular school, with an aide because of his blindness.

"They're doing really well. They are some of the tallest kids their age. Tyson is walking and talking, and Landon is vocal -- he makes sounds," Laura says. "He is a happy kid. They start kindergarten next week. It's pretty exciting."