It was June 29, 1967 and I had almost finished my first year as a Tulane surgery resident. At that time the general surgery resident was in charge of the Accident Room at Charity Hospital and this was my last night running that portion of the Emergency Department. In a few hours my shift would be over and the responsibility for the ER would rotate to my LSU equivalent. As my Tulane day ended, the LSU residents would come on to cover their day in the ongoing alternation of “T” and “L” days at Charity. This day was even more significant because on July 1 all of the services would rotate and I would become a second year resident and move out of the ER for good. I had been catching a short nap in the Burn Room, reserved for burn patients and tired residents, when a nurse awakened me about 3:00 AM with a problem. Three children had been brought in to the ER with some minor injuries from a car accident, apparently rescued by a passing motorist. The problem was that the parents had been killed in the same accident. I spoke with the good samaritans who told me that they had come upon the scene of a horrible accident on highway 90 near Slidell in which the children’s car had slammed into the back of a “mosquito control” truck. Because of the fog coming off of Lake Pontchartrain the driver had not seen the slow moving truck in his lane and driven right underneath it. The front seat occupants had been nearly decapitated and killed immediately but the children sleeping in the back had been spared. The police, anxious to get the children away from the gruesome scene, had sent them on to Charity Hospital. It had now fallen to me to identify and treat the children and then get them to their relatives.
Because the children were young and disoriented from their accident, information was hard to come by. There was a 4 year old girl and her 2 slightly older brothers. Soon it became obvious that they were not locals. They explained that they lived in California and Europe and had been traveling with their mother and her boyfriend on some kind of a tour along the Gulf Coast. They told me that their last name was Hargitay, which didn’t ring any bells with me, but something on one of the boys did catch my eye. It was a long and jagged scar across his head and scalp that looked fairly new. When I asked about it, he told me that his father’s tiger had attacked him! Well that was quite astonishing, even for Charity. Then I remembered a story about a Hollywood child who had been mauled by a show tiger and I realized who the children were. They confirmed that they were the children of Jayne Mansfield. Undoubtably she had been in the front seat of that car, killed along with her boyfriend and the driver. I later learned that they had all been traveling from Biloxi to New Orleans, leaving late that night after her show at Gus Steven’s nightclub.
My first thought was to call the children’s father but all they could tell me was that he was filming a movie in Rome. I’m sure it was the only time that the Charity Hospital operator ever placed a call to Rome, Italy for “a movie set.” When that didn’t work I realized that I was about to become a babysitter for these poor orphaned children. Normally I would have been happy to oblige but this was now the morning of the last day of my first residency year and I had quite a bit of work to do. I had to hand off all of my old patients and then receive new ones from my new service. As tragic as the situation was I didn’t feel up to the task of taking care of these children and keeping them safe until their father had been located. I was also worried about the reporters who were now starting to make their way over to the Charity ER. Then I had a brainstorm.
I called Dr John Ochsner at the Ochsner Clinic and told him the story. He said he would drop everything and could be there in 30 minutes. True to his word he arrived shortly with an entourage of medical personnel and Ochsner staff. No sooner had I thanked him before he was off with the children and a trail of reporters following along. I headed home proud of myself for solving the problem and helping everyone in the process. As you can imagine I was not the one with my picture in the paper helping the orphaned children!