Medical care shows an early sign of recovery in southeastern La.

At least 90% of one hospital's staff is back at work

Katrina's Wake

September 18, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MARRERO, La. -- For about a day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, emergency triage at the West Jefferson Medical Center was reduced to drive-by evaluations by doctors and nurses standing on the curb.

"We just looked in the car, and if they weren't dying we had to send them away," said Kerry Jeanice, a staff nurse.

The situation has improved markedly more than two weeks later, with at least 90 percent of the hospital's staff back at work and specialty areas like nuclear medicine and heart catheterization back in business. Yet this suburban hospital across the Mississippi River from New Orleans illustrates the troubled state of post-Katrina health care, if only because its progress is such a rarity in southeastern Louisiana.

As of Thursday, West Jefferson Medical Center was one of only three area hospitals in operation, out of 20 before the storm. The others were East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie and Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans.

It normally holds about 290 admitted patients but had only 180 at the end of last week, a consequence of its limited and overworked staff and the lower number of patients coming in for elective procedures. Some employees and their families have been living in hospital rooms because their homes were destroyed, while others are staying in a nursing home across the street.

West Jefferson Medical Center scarcely resembles a hospital anymore, with soldiers walking the hallways and parking lots with M-16s and more than 2,000 people lining up each day to receive tetanus and hepatitis vaccinations on the sidewalks. Much of the hospital's emergency room caseload has been transferred to a FEMA-run disaster medical assistance team working in tents on the front lawn.

"Fortunately the number of patients isn't higher, because the population is still mostly evacuated," said Tom Lowe, a nurse from New York who oversees the team of 36 people on the lawn, including six physicians.

"We're overwhelmed," said Jeanice, staffing the emergency room admissions desk inside. "Without them," he added, pointing to Lowe, "we'd be doomed."

Other hospitals were doomed. While Lowe and Jeanice were treating patients last week at West Jefferson, the only activity at the Lindy Boggs Medical Center in central New Orleans was a mortuary response team waiting for search crews inside to finish checking for bodies.

The mortuary team rumbled off in a fleet of yellow Penske trucks without saying what, if anything, they had found inside. But the hospital they left behind was littered and swamped like most of New Orleans' northern half, distinct only because the muddy debris field around it included gurneys, walkers and wheelchairs.

West Jefferson avoided such a fate because of its location in a less-damaged section of Jefferson Parish, south of the city.

But it suffered its own problems. Among the more fragile patients were 150 or so who needed kidney dialysis treatments but could not get it once the city water supply was contaminated. Most were bused 120 miles to Lafayette, La., and two were flown to a Navy ship.

In the days since, people who need dialysis, chemotherapy or other continuing treatments have been arriving at the hospital without appointments, essentially self-managing treatment, Lowe said.

"It's not ideal, of course. And I don't know how long it will continue," he said. "But I think the hospital is doing very well right now," Lowe added. "And I'll tell you a sure sign that things are getting back to normal. The gift shop opened up today."

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