Soon after Hurricane Katrina hit, Vivek Ahya, medical director of Penn’s Lung Transplant Program called Vincent Valentine, his counterpart at Oschner Hospital in New Orleans, to see if he needed help.
Though the hospital had escaped serious flooding or damage, because the city lacked essential medical services the transplant center had been forced to close, with a temporary unit set up at Oschner’s Baton Rouge clinic. Valentine, who had himself been forced to leave his home, had an urgent need for help contacting transplant patients from around the region to let them know where they could go to receive services.
Ahya quickly assembled a team of Penn medical staff including Critical Care Research Nurse Coordinator Lisa Douglas. They arrived in Baton Rouge on September 12 and spent the next 11 days dividing their time between the Oschner clinic and a Red Cross shelter in St. Charles, southwest of New Orleans.
Much of the work was clerical, a distinct change of pace for Ahya, who is also an assistant professor of medicine in Penn’s School of Medicine. It was rewarding nonetheless, he says, to successfully track down patients in Mississippi, Houston, Tallahassee and Arkansas. “These patients are very needy,” says Ahya. “Lisa had a patient who broke down and started crying. She hadn’t heard from anyone and had no idea where the New Orleans practice had gone. There’s a real sense of relief to reconnect with your physician.”
Douglas says she soon realized what a difference they were making. “It’s been helpful, us being here,” said Douglas, talking via cell phone from Baton Rouge. “There are three nurses in this practice. One had been rescued and airlifted to Houston. She just got back last week. Another nurse lost her house in a tornado—there wasn’t even any rubble left. By my coming here it gave her the opportunity to do what she needed to do, like applying to FEMA for help.”
As well as contacting and treating transplant patients, Ahya and his crew found themselves involved in a fair amount of primary care. “A lot of patients since the flooding of their homes hadn’t taken their blood pressure pills or heart pills or insulin,” says Ahya, “so we made sure they got examined. Plus there were a lot of injections, minor scrapes and bruises.” More than their physical difficulties, though, says Ahya, many of the displaced New Orleanians were suffering from intense and prolonged stress. Ahya found himself spending much of his time in Baton Rouge “just talking to people, getting them to tell us their story.”
With no hotel rooms available—the population of Baton Rouge doubled almost overnight—the Penn team slept on the exam room floors and took turns taking showers in the hospital clinic. Compared to the doctors and nurses based at the St. Charles shelter, Ahya considers his own experience relatively luxurious. “We’ve complained about sleeping on the floor, but they’ve been working in extreme heat and humidity.” That team—Laurie Bokelman, an ICU nurse, along with senior pulmonary fellows Colin Gillespie and Giora Netzer—provided urgent primary care, driving an RV supplied by FEMA from shelter to shelter.
Lisa Douglas split her time between the clinic in Baton Rouge and the team out in the field. Their work went far beyond prescriptions and primary care, she says. One day, Douglas and the physicians had worked all day in blistering heat when they came upon a shelter that was out of toilet paper and paper towels. The Baptist church in St. Charles, where the team was sleeping, had ample supplies, so they picked up the necessities and prepared to drive back to the shelter. The crew had noticed that there were several children, ages 4 to 16, living in the shelter with no privacy and nothing to do all day.
“We managed to find donated markers, crayons and tablets,” says Douglas, “and we loaded up the RV with these supplies, and I left there with such a sense of what we have in Philadelphia and what they don’t have. They were so thrilled to have pencils and paper, you’d have thought it was Christmas.”
Now back in Philadelphia, Ahya and Douglas both say the experience gave them a new perspective on health care delivery, poverty and the importance of connecting with their patients. “Truly I haven’t regretted one second,” says Douglas, “except for the temperature, and the mosquitoes and the red ants.”
Originally published on October 6, 2005