updated 9/5/2005 1:52:51 PM ET 2005-09-05T17:52:51

Volunteer physicians are pouring in to care for the sick, but red tape is keeping hundreds of others from caring for Hurricane Katrina survivors while health problems escalate.

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Among the doctors stymied from helping out are 100 surgeons and paramedics in a state-of-the-art mobile hospital marooned in rural Mississippi.

"The bell was rung, the e-mails were sent off. ...We all got off work and deployed," said one of the frustrated surgeons, Dr. Preston "Chip" Rich of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"We have tried so hard to do the right thing. It took us 30 hours to get here," he said. That government officials can't straighten out the mess and get them assigned to a relief effort now that they're just a few miles away "is just mind-boggling," he said.

While the doctors wait, the first predictable signs of disease from contaminated water began to emerge on Saturday: A Mississippi shelter was closed after 20 residents got sick with dysentery, probably from drinking contaminated water.

Many other storm survivors were being treated in the Houston Astrodome and other shelters for an assortment of problems, including chronic health conditions left untreated because people had lost or used up their medicine.

The North Carolina mobile hospital stranded in Mississippi was developed with millions of tax dollars through the Office of Homeland Security after 9-11. With capacity for 113 beds, it is designed to handle disasters and mass casualties.

Equipment includes ultrasound, digital radiology, satellite Internet, and a full pharmacy, enabling doctors to do most types of surgery in the field, including open-chest and abdominal operations.

It travels in a convoy that includes two 53-foot trailers, which as of Sunday afternoon was parked on a gravel lot 70 miles north of New Orleans because Louisiana officials for several days would not let them deploy to the flooded city, Rich said.

Offers of help turned away
Yet plans to use the facility and its 100 health professionals were hatched days before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, doctors in the caravan said.

As they talked with Mississippi officials about prospects of helping out there, other doctors complained that their offers of help also were turned away.

A primary care physician from Ohio called and e-mailed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after seeing a notice on the American Medical Association's Web site about volunteer doctors being needed.

An e-mail reply told him to watch CNN that night where U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt was to announce a Web address for doctors to enter their names in a database.

"How crazy is that?" he complained in an e-mail to his daughter.

Leavitt, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, and Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were in Louisiana on Sunday, and Gerberding planned to go to Texas where many evacuees are now housed.

Many other doctors have been able to volunteer, and were arriving in large numbers Sunday in Baton Rouge. Several said they worked it out through Louisiana state officials.

Dr. Bethany Gardiner, a 36-year-old pediatrician who just moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., from Florida, had been visiting parents the Sunshine state when the hurricane hit.

"I left my kids and just started searching places on the Web" to volunteer, eventually getting an invitation to come to Baton Rouge, she said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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