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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

John Biguenet's Back to New Orleans - 100 Sick Kids

Oct. 18, 2005
100 Sick Kids

Few of the scenes the world witnessed on television in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were as distressing as watching besieged doctors and nurses at New Orleans hospitals beg for help in evacuating their critically ill patients. With local government overwhelmed by the scope of the catastrophe and an unprepared federal government dithering for days, medical staffs worked without electrical power or water to save those they could. The bodies of those they couldn’t were left behind on the lower floors or in the stairwells of the hospitals as water rose after the levee system had failed. But in the end, the city’s medical professionals saved most of those entrusted to their care.

My wife, Marsha, has taught the children of a number of doctors over the years, so we often recognized the faces of the physicians interviewed in those desperate days in makeshift wards or on hospital rooftops as they waited for helicopters to evacuate their patients. Now that we’re back home, we’ve heard story after story of the incredible job men and women in the New Orleans medical community — and often their spouses, who worked alongside them in the hospitals — performed in the chaotic conditions of the flooded city.

At dinner a few nights ago, we heard a story about a hospital here where everything went right after the hurricane. Our host, a pediatrician, told us about what happened to the 100 critically ill kids at Children’s Hospital. He began by emphasizing the advantages his hospital had over the downtown medical centers. Located in the university section of the city near Loyola and Tulane, the facility suffered no flooding, and though it had no armed guards, it was not looted. So thanks to a hurricane plan that had provided several weeks of electrical-generator capacity, the hospital was able to offer uninterrupted service to its 100 bed-ridden young patients and their families until a few days after the storm when civil authorities called for a complete evacuation of the city.

Part of the pre-storm planning involved a network of children’s hospitals across the country. As our friend explained, getting the kids out of New Orleans was not the only problem; the bigger challenge was insuring that they wound up at the right facility to treat their particular ailments. So the plan addressed, for example, how to move young heart patients with a team of specialists to a pediatric cardiac-care center somewhere else in the country.

How did they do it? First of all, they decided against planning on any government assistance during an emergency that would require evacuation of the hospital — a wise decision, as it turned out, since no government assistance was available to them after the hurricane. Instead, in cooperation with children’s hospitals elsewhere, they organized an ambulance caravan from Texas, flights of helicopters from Florida as well as fixed-wing aircraft from Kansas City, and an automobile convoy of patients, staff, and associated family members to Baton Rouge. When it was over, all the children had been safely transported to Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

I asked our friend who had paid for such an undertaking. “You worry about the cost later,” he explained.

Now Children’s Hospital is facing additional costs. It has opened regional centers after the storm to treat its other patients scattered in Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Metairie. Since at any given time in the New Orleans facility, 65 percent of the kids are Medicaid patients — and since poor children tend to have worse illnesses thanks to delayed treatment — money matters to an institution with its mission. But in the midst of a staggering disaster, the mission mattered more than the money. And so the network of children’s hospitals and their supporters around the country was able to save 100 sick kids.

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