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Katrina evacuee's smile, strength remain despite losing legs in crash

LAWRENCEVILLE

Terrell Batiste, a Katrina evacuee whose legs were severed in an automobile accident two months ago, has every reason to play the blues.

But instead, the 21-year-old jazz trumpet player with a soft baby face and big brown eyes is hopeful, even grateful, and his smile alone is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Batiste's string of bad luck started in New Orleans, when he and other family members were forced to evacuate in August to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. Batiste's girlfriend Kikelomo Conley, 28, joined him in taking temporary shelter at a family friend's house in Baton Rouge.

When it became evident that their home and personal property had been destroyed and they would not be able to return to New Orleans, Batiste and Conley relocated again a month later to his 27-year-old sister's one-bedroom apartment in Lawrenceville. Ten family members packed into the small space during that first week, just trying to get by while figuring out their next step.

Batiste looked on the bright side.

"I knew I had always wanted to come to Atlanta, I just hadn't been able to," Batiste said.

In the months that followed, Batiste and Conley got their own apartment in Duluth. He continued playing gigs with his brass band, The Hot 8, traveling back and forth between the band's home base in New Orleans and other cities across the country.

Conley, who formerly worked at a toll booth in Louisiana, was drawing unemployment, but things were going well with the couple. So well that Batiste and Conley got engaged over the winter and were beginning wedding plans.

Five months after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, they learned Batiste's 82-year-old grandmother whom they had been searching for had not survived. She had stayed behind and evacuated to the Superdome along with thousands of others. She went into shock from the heat outside, became dehydrated and never recovered.

"When emergency workers did come, it was too late to help her," Batiste said.

It was a devastating blow to the family, especially Batiste's mother, but it wouldn't be the last.

On April 12, shortly after Batiste and Conley had gotten engaged, the couple was driving back from eating dinner in downtown Atlanta. Suddenly, Conley's 1998 Chevrolet Tahoe got a flat tire in the HOV lane of Interstate 85 north near Pleasantdale Road.

Heavy traffic prevented them from pulling off the road, so they inched as close to the inside wall as they could. The pair telephoned a friend for help and then exited the Tahoe to set out a plastic orange traffic cone to warn oncoming drivers.

Batiste was standing in front of the rear bumper and reaching into the trunk when the blow came. Maybe it would have been a blessing not to remember, but he recalls every bit of what happened next.

A Honda Civic came from out of nowhere and slammed into the back of the Tahoe. One of Batiste's legs was completely severed in the accident, and the other barely hung on by some muscle tissue. Fortunately, the impact had pinched the skin together so that he only lost a minimal amount of blood.

Not realizing what had occurred, Batiste tried to push himself up from the ground until he looked down at his legs.

"I knew they were gone," Batiste said.

Rescue workers took Batiste to Gwinnett Medical Center, where he refused to let nurses sedate him or begin surgery until he could see his mother. The whole time he had been waiting for the ambulance and riding to the hospital, all Batiste could think about was her. He knew that losing him would be too much for his mother after the trauma the family had just experienced with Hurricane Katrina.

"I just wanted to see her face," Batiste said. "I just told her it was going to be all right. She said 'I know.'"

The next thing Batiste remembers is waking up bleary-eyed and seeing the doctor wrapping up his amputated legs.

"I was like, 'Whoa, is that my legs?'" Batiste said. "The doctor said, 'You're not supposed to be here, you're a miracle child.'"

Batiste has spent the past two months wading through a sea of pain and tidal waves of emotions while recovering in the hospital. Conley never left his side. They still plan to wed in April.

"It's been a long, hard road, I can't kid you," he said.

But Batiste has taken advantage of all his free time to practice playing his trumpet - with his mute attached to muffle the sound - and work on improving his jazz chops. His outlook on life is remarkable.

"Don't get me wrong, I have my moments where I look down and am like 'whoa' and I just start crying," said Batiste, a devout Catholic who wears a bracelet of wooden beads with different saints depicted on them. "But you know, God knew this would happen before it happened. I'm not going to ask why. It's for a reason that I'm still here."

Conley said she has never considered leaving Batiste despite the ups and downs of the past few months. From the time they began dating three years ago after getting acquainted at one of Batiste's gigs, Conley says Batiste has treated her like a queen.

"He catered to me, anything I wanted he would do it," she said. "So now it's his turn. Anything he needs, I do it."

Batiste was released Thursday from Gwinnett Medical Center. He and Conley planned to stay with his mother, who lives in a ground-floor apartment in a complex adjacent to theirs, until his legs are completely healed.

As soon as possible, he wants to be fitted for prosthetic legs. Then he wants to go back to the hospital often to talk with other amputee patients and encourage them not to give up. Like the city of New Orleans, Batiste is scarred, but he will rebuild.

"You've got to believe you can do it," Batiste said. "This is just a minor setback."