TOPICS > Health

New Orleans Health Care Struggles After Hurricane Katrina

February 8, 2006 at 6:00 PM EDT
Susan Dentzer of the Health Unit reports from New Orleans about the city's broken health care system after Hurricane Katrina and the effort to assist the thousands of residents who are poor, uninsured and chronically ill.


DOCTOR: Take those scissors —

SUSAN DENTZER: Laid-off hospital worker Trina Robinson got a wisdom tooth pulled –

DOCTOR: I’m just going to hold this right in front of your eyes for a second —

SUSAN DENTZER: Seven year-old Kayla Curley got her first pair of eyeglasses –

DOCTOR: Are you short of breath at all?

SUSAN DENTZER: And Ron Grisson went home with refills for his blood pressure medications, along with his personal health record on a computer disk.

And it all happened at the oddest of places, the New Orleans Audubon Zoo.

SUSAN DENTZER: These and thousands of other New Orleans residents lost not only property and loved ones to Hurricane Katrina; they lost reliable access to health care as well.

So in what is being billed as Health Recovery Week, local residents lined up at a health fair where doctors treated them for everything from diabetes to heart disease. Dr. Ross Isaacs of the University of Virginia Medical Center:

DR. ROSS ISAACS, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: This is a post-Katrina relief clinic, the storm after the storm. The disaster is far from over for these people.

SUSAN DENTZER: The health fair is just one of many efforts underway in New Orleans to slap a big temporary band-aid over a broken healthcare system. More than five months after Hurricane Katrina, only about seven of the metro region’s sixteen hospitals are back up and running and only about a third of doctors who were here before the storm have returned.

DOCTOR: Kayla Curley —

SUSAN DENTZER: The effort was pulled together by a handful of organizations along with donations and a federal grant. More than 500 volunteer doctors, nurses and other health personnel came from 38 states to help out.

DOCTOR: Today we’re out here today with 1,200 meals.

SUSAN DENTZER: They came under the auspices of the Tennessee-based Remote Medical Assistance Volunteer Corps. Stan Brock is the founder.

STAN BROCK: What Remote Area Medical normally does is we provide free health care and veterinary care in various parts of the world where people live in very remote and isolated regions, people without access to those kinds of services. Most of us are used to sleeping on the floor.

SUSAN DENTZER: Having led relief groups to the Amazon and remote areas of Russia, Brock took volunteers to the Gulf immediately after Katrina. He says he knew right then that the emergency response would not be enough.

STAN BROCK: We knew that several months later there was going to be a need for a massive follow-up operation, people who lost their glasses during the floods, the people, economic hardships, wouldn’t be able to go to the dentist to get their teeth fixed, so we brought down about 70 dental chairs and 30 lanes of eye examination equipment.

So we’re going to be able to extract thousands of bad teeth, hopefully save thousands of good teeth by filling them, and we’ll also be able to give people what they need to be able to see, to get a job, a brand new pair of eyeglasses made on the spot in one of the Remote Area Medical mobile units, and we’ll also be doing basic primary health care as well.

SUSAN DENTZER: Of the estimated 200,000 New Orleans residents who are now back in the city, thousands are poor, uninsured and chronically ill. Barbara Page came to the fair hours before the gate opened.

BARBARA PAGE: My hands and my feet are numb and tingly all the time.

SUSAN DENTZER: Page was evacuated from her flooded home by boat. She lived in a shelter and is now back in her home without electricity. A diabetic, she had not eaten for two days. At the health fair she passed out while standing in line.

DR. MARCUS MARTIN: We can’t completely rule out a heart attack just with an EGK, we’ll have to do some blood work —

SUSAN DENTZER: Dr. Marcus Martin, who normally runs the emergency department at the University of Virginia Medical Center, treated Page.

DR. MARCUS MARTIN: She’s going to need a doctor, someone to follow her and to control of her blood sugar. Although her blood sugar wasn’t that high, it’s probably running higher than usual for her, and she’s going to at least need some oral hypoglycemic agents.

SUSAN DENTZER: Page, a 64 year-old widow, said it would not be easy getting care.

BARBARA PAGE: I live on a Social Security check. I cannot afford, you know, to go to a doctor. There should be some comprehensive health care for poor people and working poor so that you don’t have to go without health care and your condition just deteriorates and gets worse and worse.

SUSAN DENTZER: Deteriorating health is exactly what happened to 55-year-old Ron Grisson. He’s a former New Orleans public schoolteacher who lost his job with the hurricane and his health insurance soon after. Grisson came to the health fair with very high blood pressure — in part because he could no longer afford to take full doses of his medication.

RON GRISSON: Now, this one here, it costs too much money; I didn’t have no money to get it, so I haven’t been taking it.

DR. ROSS ISAACS: It’s a silent epidemic; you don’t get your meds down here, you’re going to have strokes and heart attacks.

The patient after Ron, his mother had a stroke last week, because she cut her pills in half and a quarter, had kidney failure and he’s having to bury her this week. So these are preventable diseases. And you know, we need really an army of people to come down here and help all these people.

SUSAN DENTZER: Others who came were healthy, like Sharon Karriem. But she worried about the health risks in post-Katrina New Orleans. We first met her Karriem the day before the health fair began, cleaning out her devastated home in the lower 9th ward.

SHARON KARRIEM: I’m constantly coughing, you know, I feel like I have to constantly blow my nose, I have to cough, I have to get whatever it is, the scratchy feeling out of my throat. It’s horrible. It’s awful. You know, I don’t know if it’s from the dust, I don’t know if it’s from the mold, I’m not sure what it is.

SUSAN DENTZER: At the health fair, Karriem got some advice about the cough and how to stay safe. Now jobless and without health insurance, she also got a long-delayed medical exam. Part of the health fair was designed to solve a problem that cropped up in Katrina, when most paper health records were destroyed and evacuees who fled often could not remember the drugs or doses they were taking.

DOCTOR: The nurse would have to enter the data on the computer.

SUSAN DENTZER: The solution introduced at the fair was a new personal electronic health record, loaded onto a computer disk or memory stick for each attendee.

DOCTOR: This is just strictly for you; this is your record.

SUSAN DENTZER: Intel Corporation donated $300,000 worth of computer equipment to help get the system up and running. After some few glitches, it did. Dr. Kevin Stephens is director of the New Orleans Health Department.

DR. KEVIN STEPHENS: We think it’s very important that our citizens have the autonomy to have their access to the medical records similar to your bank account.

For instance, we can go pretty much anywhere in the world and go to an ATM machine and receive and get whatever cash you have out of your account. But we think you should have the same access to your medical information, something you can just plug it into pretty much any computer and you have access to your medical records.

RON GRISSON: This is like an ID for you, you know, to take wherever you go, not only New Orleans but anywhere you go you can take this.

SUSAN DENTZER: As several thousand patients showed up for the first three days of the health fair this week, at least one had to be driven to the hospital with a suspected heart attack. Thousands more are expected over the coming days.

New Orleans Deputy Health Director Dr. Sandra Robinson told us local officials may have underestimated the need.

DR. SANDRA ROBINSON: Walking that line, what we’re finding is there are a whole lot of people who have lost their jobs, lost their health insurance and lost their physician and their hospital. So it’s much more dire than we thought it would be and I think that today has been a godsend, at least they tell me to many people who absolutely needed not only an update but they really needed a medical home.

SUSAN DENTZER: The New Orleans Health Fair is scheduled to go through Sunday.