Tulane med students again must evade a storm

Hurricane Rita

September 22, 2005|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,Sun reporter

Tulane University School of Medicine, chased from its New Orleans campus by Katrina, was scrambling to evacuate again yesterday as a second major hurricane bore down on its temporary quarters in Houston.

"It's increased everyone's sense of humor," Tulane medical student Andrew Schutzbank said yesterday. "The joke is, if Rita comes, maybe we just weren't [meant] for medical school this year."

Schutzbank is among a group of displaced Tulane deans and medical students frantically trying to salvage the school year with the help of borrowed offices, classrooms, materials and staff from Baylor College of Medicine and three other Texas institutions.

The initial plan was for registration to begin Saturday and classes to start Monday in borrowed space at Baylor. Clinical rotations for third- and fourth-year students were scheduled for cooperating medical centers in Galveston and Houston.

But by yesterday morning, with Rita gathering steam across the Gulf of Mexico, Baylor was readying plans to close at 5 p.m. to all but essential personnel. Tulane Medical School Dean Ian Taylor and fellow administrators were phoning the 40 or so Tulane students known to be in Houston, advising them to leave.

"Just getting away from the coastal region is the important thing," Taylor said. "Hotel rooms are tough at the moment - San Antonio doesn't have any, and Dallas is filling up."

Registration is now planned for Oct. 1 and classes will start Oct. 3, "providing the city is not hit badly," Taylor said.

The latest hurricane is just another challenge in a task that already seemed daunting: moving an entire medical school and more than 600 hurricane-scattered students on short notice. The school's clinical rotations and residencies also had to be moved because its teaching hospital - Tulane University Hospital and Clinic - remains closed.

About 200 Tulane medical residents were expected to begin rotations at various South Texas institutions Oct. 1, Taylor said. E-mail messages posted as recently as this week on a hastily arranged school forum showed that confusion remained.

"I don't know my status," one obstetrics and gynecology resident wrote Tuesday. "Anybody can help me find out about it?"

The story of doctors, residents and nurses who stayed with patients at Tulane Hospital amid Katrina's flooding, power outages and resulting Civil War-era medical conditions already has become the stuff of legend.

Taylor, whose clinical responsibilities as dean are limited to teaching rounds, evacuated ahead of Katrina and was focused on reconstituting the shattered medical school. He began in the one-bed Houston hotel room he shared until recently with his wife, son and two cats. Tulane's phones, e-mail and all computer records were down, but Taylor was able to find a couple of other medical school administrators who had evacuated to Houston.

They called on Baylor College of Medicine President Peter G. Traber, an old friend of Taylor's. By that time, Traber had already discussed with his administrators the idea of extending an invitation to Tulane. The Houston school was empathetic because it had been damaged and temporarily closed by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Traber said.

Soon, Baylor had donated an office, two phone lines, three desks and adjoining conference rooms. It also helped Tulane put up an emergency Web site and contributed staff time.

Enterprising medical students such as Schutzbank - who had evacuated to Houston and found his deans by calling the American Association of Medical Colleges - began arriving in the borrowed rooms at Baylor to help.

Houston, already the site of a satellite location for Tulane University's business school, would be an ideal place to start over were it not for Hurricane Rita. Some faculty and staff already had relocated there, and the city is a major medical hub.

The area is home to Baylor, Texas A&M University's Institute of Biosciences and Technology and the University of Texas Medical School. The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is nearby. The four institutions make up the Alliance of South Texas Academic Health Centers, formed this month to help Tulane continue until it can get back to its battered New Orleans campus.

juliana.bell@baltsun.com

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