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New Orleans Emergency Rooms Up and Running

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New Orleans Emergency Rooms Up and Running

Katrina & Beyond

New Orleans Emergency Rooms Up and Running

New Orleans Emergency Rooms Up and Running

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New Orleans emergency rooms have easily kept up with demand during Mardi Gras after health-care officials rushed to get emergency services up and running. Two national-disaster mobile medical units have been deployed to the city and a mobile trauma "level one" unit came from North Carolina.


In the best of times, Mardi Gras is a challenge for hospitals in New Orleans. And this year poses a particular problem. Only a handful of hospitals are still fully functional, and even before a couple of hundred thousand people descended on the city for carnival, emergency rooms could barely handle the need. NPR's Alix Spiegel has this report on healthcare during the festival.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

Two weeks ago, shortly before Tulane Hospital opened for the first time since Katrina, Chief Operating Officer Kim Ryan walked into the emergency room and found a group of ER nurses on their knees.

Ms. KIM RYAN (Chief Operating Officer, Tulane Hospital): I watched ICU nurses with toothbrushes scrubbing the floor in the corners, to make sure it was going to be clean for the 14th.

SPIEGEL: The staff, she says, was determined, "killed themselves" so Tulane would be open for Mardi Gras. Since Katrina shuttered six of nine Orleans Parish hospitals, emergency rooms have been severely overloaded. Even with a reduced population, eight to 20 hour waits are not unusual. And once Mayor Nagin announced Mardi Gras would run, hospitals in the region began scrambling to figure out how it might be possible to support an increase in their patient loads.

The opening of Tulane was seen as part of this solution. But according to Steven Malerny(ph), a doctor at the Tulane emergency room, it became clear almost immediately that it wouldn't be sufficient.

Dr. STEVEN MALERNY (Emergency Room Physician, Tulane Hospital): Initially, again, when we opened up, I was enthusiastic and I was thinking well this is going to be fine. We're going to handle all this. In two or three days, once the hospitals started filling up, then we started realizing we're not even, we're not even in Mardi Gras yet and we need some help.

SPIEGEL: And so an alternative plan was quickly formulated.

Ms. HELGA SCARFELL(ph) (National Disaster Medical System - NDMS): Our teams were activated on Friday last week. And they were already in transit on Saturday. And we were operational on Monday morning at 0700.

SPIEGEL: This is Helga Scarfell, one of over 200 medical professionals who have been imported from around the country to help reduce the strain on New Orleans hospitals. Scarfell is with the National Disaster Medical System which is part of Homeland Security. Generally speaking NDMS, as its known, is only activated in the case of extreme disasters.

And according to Susan Briggs(ph), a doctor whose worked with NDMS for over 20 years, the fact that they've been deployed suggests a lot about just how devastated the hospital system here is.

Dr. SUSAN BRIGGS (NDMS Physician): I've never seen or even thought that I would see this in my own country. I led the U.S. Team to Bam, Iran during the earthquake. And I went to Armenia and a lot of other places. I never thought I would be using teams for this in the U.S.

SPIEGEL: But here they are, 140 fresh beds spread over two downtown parking lots. There are two DMAT centers and one huge portable medical facility from North Carolina that can do even the most complicated operations. Helga Scarfell gives a tour of the DMAT tents which houses patients.

Ms. SCARFELL: This side is for acute care need, your chest pain, or stroke. Your trauma patient will go that way. This area right here is a pharmacy.

SPIEGEL: But as Scarfell moves towards the acute trauma area, she's stopped by a nurse who cautions here away.

Unidentified Woman: We're busy right now 'cause we just got a few admissions so it might not be a good time to go in there.

SPIEGEL: The teams have been busy. They've seen dozens of patients a day. And just as planned, their work has greatly reduced pressure on the emergency departments of New Orleans. For the first time in months, ER departments have been relatively calm. In fact the plan was so successful that one ER member, a young doctor named Michael Cabnotchy(ph) said he almost felt disappointed.

Dr. MICHAEL CABNOTCHY: I very much thought that this was going to be, like, more of a test of, you know, our skill, and, you know, managing multiple patients at one time. And you know, I was actually looking forward to it. And I kind of signed up for it, you know, I thought it would be exciting and, you know, a lot of, you know, sick patients, and a lot of stuff going on. And it ended up not being that way. But in a way I'm pleased. It is better.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel. NPR News, New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

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