Filed Under:  Health & Wellness, Local, Medicine, OpEd

Convention Center was site for health clinic, over a thousand attend

7th September 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
The Louisiana Weekly

This reporter spent the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina waiting in line at the New Orleans Convention Center.

At least, I and the 1,200 people who gathered to gain free access to a doctor and prescriptions did not have to stand in the hot sun. The demand for medical treatment was so overwhelming, however, that by six o’clock, the volunteer doctors had run out of many critical painkillers, medicines, and all HIV tests.

“We’re used to getting six or seven hundred people at most,” explained one volunteer nurse to The Louisiana Weekly. “The demand for health care here [in New Orleans] is overwhelming.”

“It’s not so surprising,” commented another volunteer, Sandra Stokes of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana. “There are few places these people can go to get access to affordable health care. You know the tragedy is that when we commissioned the RMJM Hillier Report, they said that it would take three years to reopen Charity Hospital. That was three years ago. All of these people would have health treatment right now.”

Instead, the timetable for opening even the first phase of the new University Medical Center in Mid-City is at least five MORE years. Or as WSLA 1560 AM talkshow host Chris Champagne put it to this newspaper, “Maybe the strategy is to provide free health care after everybody is already dead.” (Hear Chris 7-8 a.m. weekdays.)

Champagne noted he was being slightly factious, but his point carried weight with the throngs of New Orleanians sitting for hours just to see a physician. “Some of these people have not had a check up in 10 years,” one volunteer put it to this reporter. “Many have not seen any doctor since Katrina.”

The National Association of Free Clinics, set up at Hall J of the Morial Conventional Center to offer primary and preventive care to hundreds of uninsured or underinsured individuals, as well as referrals to free and community-based clinics in New Orleans. Advertised services included blood pressure checks, EKGs, glucose tests for diabetes, urinalysis and HIV tests.

This reporter arrived at 4 p.m. on the first of the two-day visit by the gaggle of volunteer doctors and nurses. The set up was efficient, if multi-staged. Starting at a sign up desk, the volunteer clerk asked me the nature of the medical situation, while handing me papers that said the NAFC could not be sued since this was free care.

I replied, “I have had this mole on my back that has grown and is now rubbing against my clothes. It is very annoying, if not life threatening. Can they cut it off or treat it in some way? Are there dermatological treatments available?”

The lady responded, “Of course,” and set me to sit at a row of chairs entering Hall J. After fifteen minutes, my row was called up, and we were seated at a second panel of clerks, who fitted us with numbered armbands, and then dispatched us to a large waiting area with close to 400 chairs — mostly filled with waiting patients.

An hour and fifteen minutes later, after enough numbers had been called to fill a day at a commodities exchange, my #783 was summoned along with 10 other patients. The volunteers, Sandra Stokes amongst them, led us to another waiting area—past throngs of media headed by the wandering camera crews of MSNBC’s Ed Shultz. (Patients were asked if they wished to sign a waiver if they wished to be interviewed. It was optional, though, most agreed; with the caveat that they would not be paid. Knowing that I wrote for the Weekly, I was excused from the media process.)

In another waiting area of roughly a hundred people, each person sat for another 20 minutes. (In typical doctor’s office fashion, the most recent Time magazine dated from December 2009, but since these were all volunteers, it was hard to cast ascetic blame.)

Each person was individually called to a duty nurse, who took blood pressure, and confirmed what brought the patient to Hall J. I asked the very nice volunteer, “Will they be able to do something about my mole,” feeling somewhat guilty at this point as there were clearly more demanding medical conditions being treated. I went so far as to suggest that perhaps I should leave.

“Not at all,” she declared, urging me to stay and wait for a doctor. And, so I did, for another 45 minutes.

The physician, a very nice volunteer, chatted with me behind a curtain similar to a MASH unit. Upon looking at my mole, he commented, “That has to come off.”

“Great!” I said.

“You need to get that done,” he replied.

“Okay.” Polite silence. “What about here,” I finally said.

He looked pained. “We could have done it this morning, but we have run out of lidocaine. We can’t make the muscles numb. We have had more people here than these clinics ever get. We’re close to 1,200 in one day. We just don’t have the resources for these many people.”

“Is there anything you can do?”

“Let me go talk to the surgeon and ask.” The doctor left, just as Ed Shultz was conducting a walking interview with Congressman Cedric Richmond. As they took step after step forward in their conversation, the cameraman walked backyard steadily with his camera—unseeingly stepping over wires and medical obstacles. I got the mental image of the cameraman tripping, breaking his neck, and being told that he couldn’t be treated in the middle of a mobile hospital because there were no drugs left.

The lack of pharmaceuticals was confirmed when the doctor returned. Just as he explained the overwhelming demand, a nurse came up and told him,” We have just run out of HIV tests.”

I asked her about the run on supplies. “The drugs are donated. Wal-Mart gives us a certain amount, as do others. There are just too many people.” She seemed glum, knowing that this was only the first day. Hundreds more were coming the next.

It had been a week before that David Simon, the creator of HBO’s Treme, commented that clear cutting Mid-City to build a “state of the art” UMC bore a striking resemblance to what occurred in his home city of Baltimore. After ripping down an historic neighborhood, the promise of the billion dollar hospital never came when the State of Maryland ran out of money, and the federal government refused to pick up the tab.

Only two buildings were ever constructed on the multi-acre plot, far below the promises of hospital beds once made. In an interview, Stokes worried that is exactly what may be happening here. Noting the at least $400 million shortfall in hospital construction funds, “the state is going to have to rely on public-private partnerships that could take years to even begin construction. Meanwhile, just look around, people aren’t getting health care.”

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