Video: Katrina's impact still felt at hospitals

NBC News
By Ron Allen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/9/2006 3:47:58 PM ET 2006-02-09T20:47:58

NEW ORLEANS, La. — The emergency-service call came over the radio. Paramedic Dave Poirier assured the dispatcher that he was on his way.

With sirens blaring and lights flashing, he raced down the highway to the scene of a traffic accident. As he drove, he hoped for two things: First, that any injuries would not be serious; and second, a more recent worry — that if anyone required attention that he would be able to find a place to treat them.

"When the hospitals are full, the emergency rooms become full," Poirier explained of a major problem health care workers face because of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. "There's often no place to put our patients when we bring them in." 

Poirier's first hope was realized — he and his colleagues treated three teenagers who were more upset about the damage to their car than any serious injuries.

As for his second, the news was not so good. Wanting to make sure the teens were completely OK, Poirier dropped them off at East Jefferson General Hospital's emergency room, just outside of New Orleans in Jefferson Parish.

They were in for a long wait.

Poirier's experience with the teens is an example of a crisis facing the New Orleans area: a shortage of hospitals. Only one full-service medical center is open in the heart of New Orleans, the Touro Infirmary. (Children's Hospital of New Orleans also is open, but its not equipped to treat adult patients.) Otherwise, a make-shift tent hospital is the only other option available for patients in the downtown area.

Limited resources
The problem is acute. The entire metropolitan area has about one third the number of beds that it had before Katrina struck. Building damage is one issue. Another factor is that thousands of doctors and other medical staff who evacuated because of the storm have not returned.

The result is that residents suffering from anything from minor ailments to major trauma are crowding into emergency rooms. And many patients, often poor and without medical insurance, are often waiting several hours to see a doctor.

MASH units for major medical facility
"I can't imagine it being much more serious," said Dr. Peter DeBlieux, of the shuttered Louisiana/Charity Hospital, once the city's busiest, which has been replaced by ten military tents resembling MASH units. Tucked into a corner of the city's convention center, it is jammed by up to 200 patients daily. Waiting times can stretch through the day.

Patients like Eloy Hinosa, who came in after fainting during a dizzy spell, know to arrive early in the morning. "I think the key is to come in as early as you can and just have patience," he advised.

But DeBlieux could barely contain his outrage. "It seems unbelievable that a major city would have these kinds of struggles," he said.

Much of the problem, he believes, is that New Orleans is a poor city with little political clout. "If we were in a more high-profile area like Chicago, Boston, Washington or Los Angeles," he said, "there would be an outpouring of community demand and support that would dictate a different experience.”

Mardi Gras revelers spell more problems
Matters could potentially get worse before they get batter. Mardi Gras — that raucous carnival celebration at the end of February when hundreds of thousands of extra revelers come to town — typically triples the number of visits to emergency rooms.

Medical adminstrators have, of course, anticipated the event and are holding strategy sessions and warning hospitals far beyond the city that their beds might be needed. However, they also worry about a severe flu season or a big disaster, like a fire or a multiple car pile up, that might overwhelm the system. 

"We're right on the line," warned Dr. John Wales at East Jefferson General Hospital. "I think it will be any day...that all the hospitals get overflowed at which point we'll be calling for help."

There is some good news. Tulane University's medical center plans to reopen with limited service this month, just in time for Mardi Gras. It will be the first downtown New Orleans hospital to reopen since Katrina. 

And others urge patience in the face of the greatest natural disaster in American history.

"I think that everybody will eventually get the care that they need," said Dr. Mark Peters, president of the New Orleans Hospital Association. "The problems right now," he added, is that "the wait may be longer than anybody likes waiting in an emergency room."

Patients pay the price
Patience, though, is useless under the tents at the convention center. Their hosts need the space for business and the makeshift hospital must move on.

"It is incredibly frustrating," said DeBlieux. "And at the end of the day who really pays the price?" he asked, knowing the answer all too well.

The patients, who also are still trying to rebuild their lives after an incredibly destructive storm.

Ron Allen is an NBC News correspondent.

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