One of my professors in medical school once told me that "the very measure of a society is how well they take care of their sick." His words have stayed with me throughout my medical career, and I heard those words again as I reported from New Orleans hospitals this week.
Nearly nine months after Katrina, it is as dangerous as ever to get ill or injured in New Orleans. In a city that once boasted the famed Charity Hospital, a mammoth trauma center that took care of the indigent and the ignored by the thousands, there are now only hastily thrown together emergency centers with limited beds and dangerously low staffing.
As I surveyed the hospital situation, I calculated that at noon on Tuesday, there were only eight hospital beds available in the entire metropolitan New Orleans area. One bad pile up on I-10 and New Orleans would in crisis mode again.
Charity is still standing, but it is empty and devoid of any life. And there are no plans to resuscitate it. When I asked one man sitting out in front of the hospital what he thought of the situation, he looked up and said, "A lot of people were born in Charity and a lot of people died there." So true, but now it is the hospital itself that has died. While there are plans to build a new Charity, a sort of Charity 2.0, it may take more than seven years for that to happen.
If there was one word to describe the hospital system in New Orleans today, it would have to be "waiting." If you are riding your bike and fall and break your collar bone, you will wait at least 12 hours. Step on a rusty nail in the morning and you shouldn't plan on seeing a doctor until the late evening. Swallow 100 Tylenols in an attempt to kill yourself and the doctors will act more quickly to save you, but then you will have to wait.
Ambulances roar up to the hospitals with sirens blaring, but I was stunned to learn it may take up to three hours to even bring the patient into the emergency room. Many patients simply lie on gurneys in the hallways that line emergency rooms throughout New Orleans with no place to go.
I wish I could say things were going to get better and that there was a master plan to improve medical care in New Orleans. Truth is, after interviewing haggard doctors at a few different hospitals, most think it is going to get worse before it gets better. As the city repopulates, there will be even more injured and ill with the same lack of resources.
My professor from medical school would be disappointed in New Orleans today. The frustration is palpable and it seems the only thing everyone agrees on is that something has to change. So, what would you suggest to try and take care of New Orleans' neediest?