Ajsa Nikolic, a family physician and wound care specialist, initially invested $1 million in her urgent care clinic in New Orleans. Now she works seven days a week and still takes ER shifts in local hospitals to earn extra money.
Ajsa Nikolic, a family physician and wound care specialist, initially invested $1 million in her urgent care clinic in New Orleans. Now she works seven days a week and still takes ER shifts in local hospitals to earn extra money. Greg Miles
A doctor working seven days a week in a clinic she started herself. A former police chief, now head of security for the troubled school system. A community organizer struggling to raise money for a library and a school. Outside the public glare, people like these are working to rebuild their homes, their neighborhoods, their communities and cities across New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
For some, it's a combination of their careers and their commitment to rebuilding the communities they grew up in. Others came to New Orleans after Katrina, then stayed, when they saw a chance to help out — and to build a new life.
The challenges are immense — in the schools, the courts, the health care system. Rebuilding homes and communities; restoring the environment. Over the next few months, NPR will be telling the stories of some of these people — profiles of some of the little-known heroes who are making a difference.
Read more in the series:
Imagine putting $1 million into a small business in downtown post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
A young doctor did just that.
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged parts of the city in 2005, Ajsa Nikolic, a family physician and wound care specialist, had almost given up on the city where she'd been practicing for years. "It smelled bad, looked depressing — no movie theaters, no plays," she says.
Another factor: Even if you could find a bar that was open, there was a dearth of eligible bachelors.
"Being a single female physician post-Katrina was no fun. We had a tremendous choice of construction workers who had a family somewhere else and who came here to let steam off," Nikolic says.
Nikolic evacuated to New York after the storm, then returned to the South within a few days, knowing physicians would be needed. But she thought she'd make a new life somewhere else. She was finished with New Orleans.
Despite its flaws, New Orleans has been an opportunity — like Alaska was after the 1964 earthquake. People fled, to be sure, but a lot of folks headed straight for Anchorage. You could invent a new life, and there was money to be made.
Birth of a Business
Nikolic — her friends call her "Dr. Nik" — was born in Denver to Croatian parents and educated in Vienna; she did her residency in New Orleans. She stayed after the storm — and ended up falling in love and getting engaged to a man who had done debris removal as part of post-Katrina cleanup efforts.
"I ran into this building, and my fiance actually pushed me a little bit and said this would be a great investment," Nikolic says.
So, in 2006, Nikolic decided to start her own urgent care clinic. New Orleans needed medical help. Hospital waiting rooms were jammed, and primary care doctors were overloaded.
New Orleans Urgent Care — which opened in November 2007 — has been seeing more than 20 patients a day lately. It's open seven days a week. Walk right in; no appointment necessary. Nikolic and her staff sew up a cut finger, do an EKG, perform almost instant blood and urine testing and take digital X-rays that a radiologist can view online.
"Urgent care is more of 'I-cut-myself, I-sprained-my-ankle, I-don't-want-to-go-sit-in-the-emergency-room, my-throat-hurts, is-it-strep-or-is-it-not, I've-got-high-high-fever, my-doctor-won't-see-me-for-a-week' room," Nikolic says. "You want to be seen when you feel bad, and that's what we do."
It's a family affair. Nikolic's mom helps with paperwork, and her dad, a retired international businessman with a Ph.D. in chemistry, helped set up the mini-lab.
Working Toward Profit
Now Nikolic has a new, fully equipped clinic — painted a happy shade of coral. (The bright building, with its "Urgent Care" sign, may be the clinic's best advertising.) She expects to make a profit and to be able to travel more with other doctors to help in underserved countries.
She knows she's helping her adopted city. After all, what would you do if you came to town for a convention and got sick?
But the price? In addition to the $1 million initial investment, Nikolic works a seven-day week and regularly skips lunch (the doctor's always in). And she is still accepting ER shifts in local hospitals, just for the extra money.
Good thing Nikolic is young — and good thing she already met her future husband.