Katrina to Katrina: AHS grad fights disease in N.O.

In July, Katrina Kretsinger called her mother, Inger, to give her a heads up on the slate of 2005 hurricanes.

"My name's on the list," she joked. "Keep an eye out."

Little did Kretsinger know that storm bearing her name would devastate an entire region, and that she'd be called in to help.

Kretsinger, who graduated from Albemarle High School in 1984 and from UVA as an Echols Scholar in 1988, is a medical epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta charged with heading up a surveillance team assigned to the region to monitor any instance of a disease outbreak.

"I got a very cryptic email," she recalls. "It said, 'Report at this time.'"

Fluent in four languages– Spanish, French, and Norwegian in addition to her native English– Kretsinger is no stranger to travel, but her Labor Day trip to New Orleans presented some new challenges.

Seeing the Convention Center littered with trash and human remains, says Kretsinger, "contrasted starkly" with her visit to the Center a year earlier for a high-brow medical convention.

Her hurricane home for nearly two weeks: the U.S.S. Iwo Jima battleship docked at a pier adjacent to the Center.

As an employee of the CDC, Kretsinger, with a master's degree from Cornell and an M.D. from Harvard, is also a member of the Public Health Service, a branch of the military in which she carries the title Lieutenant Commander. On the ship, she says, "You have to be very conscious of rank and know who to salute."

On board, she bunked with members of other military branches, sleeping in narrow berths stacked three high, and sharing a bathroom with her berthmates.

For the next two weeks, Kretsinger spent her days visiting hospitals, gathering data, and looking for any signs of a major outbreak of communicable disease.

Fortunately, she says, there were none, though there were several minor outbreaks of norovirus, a gastrointestinal bug notorious for infecting at least 60 passengers aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line in 2003. More common, she says, were "unintentional injuries," particularly carbon monoxide poisoning caused by people using generators in poorly ventilated spaces.

Thanks to broad vaccination of the U.S. population, diseases like cholera and typhoid are less likely to cause problems, she says, although tuberculosis was a concern since those infected in the area no longer had access to treatment.

Inger Kretsinger says she's proud of her daughter's high achievements, but not surprised.

"When she was little, the pencils on her desk were perfectly organized," she laughs, recalling a driven child.

Kretsinger is now a driven mother of three children of her own, ages 6, 4, and 3. She explains how she juggles a high-powered career and motherhood: "I have good support at home," including her husband, a wine importer, as well as a housekeeper and a Norwegian au pair.

Her next trip will likely be a bit more relaxing than her last.

"We're coming back to Charlottesville for Thanksgiving," she says. "It's nice being able to romp around outside. I miss UVA, so it's nice to see friends from UVA and high school."

So if someone mentions Katrina's coming our way, don't panic.