Doctor's Mission: Help Hurricane Survivors As relief efforts continue along the Gulf Coast, Dr. Joe Freeman is doing everything he can to help. The Louisiana physician talks with Farai Chideya.

Doctor's Mission: Help Hurricane Survivors

Doctor's Mission: Help Hurricane Survivors

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As relief efforts continue along the Gulf Coast, Dr. Joe Freeman is doing everything he can to help. The Louisiana physician talks with Farai Chideya.


From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. Ed Gordon is away.

This weekend hurricane survivors continued to be evacuated from Louisiana. Search and rescue teams plucked survivors from rooftops and homes while others already rescued were shuttled to cities and states throughout the country. Millions of Americans are trying to offer the help they can to the evacuees. Some are opening their homes; more are making donations while others are on the front lines helping to care for the evacuees. Among those closest to the tragedy is Dr. Joe Freeman of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Frustrated by the lack of medical care for hurricane survivors, he's building a clinic just two miles from New Orleans. He shared with us what he's witnessed and what he's doing to help.

Dr. JOE FREEMAN: I'm treating evacuees in from New Orleans, all over. I'm been in this last five days, and things are running together, but I've been in a place called Jennings, Louisiana, which is actually two and a half miles from New Orleans.

CHIDEYA: Tell us what you typically do, though. What kind of medicine do you typically practice, and where do you practice it?

Dr. FREEMAN: OK. I basically do family medicine and emergency room medicine. You know, we as family doctors do a little bit of everything, and for the last five or six years I've been doing strictly emergency room medicine.

CHIDEYA: How did you get involved in the disaster relief?

Dr. FREEMAN: You couldn't really help it. I mean, I happened to be working. I live in Baton Rouge. We were told the hurricane was coming last week, on Friday. Of course, I was concerned about my family, but I was an hour and a half away from my family, and those who could made their way Saturday and Sunday, prior to Katrina hitting, towards Houston. And of course, we're on the way to Houston. So we started seeing people who were evacuees from New Orleans and their surrounding areas. The people that I saw leaving maybe that may have stopped at my emergency room, because they ran out of a particular medication or they were sick or whatever have you not, were of one complexion.

CHIDEYA: So when you say that the people who came through just trying to get things done before they evacuated were of one complexion, I'm presuming you mean...

Dr. FREEMAN: White.

CHIDEYA: ...white Americans.


CHIDEYA: And then afterwards, as the evacuees came, what did you see?

Dr. FREEMAN: Tuesday I worked. Tuesday night I began to work, and then I started seeing stuff. Then they opened up shelters. They had shelters, but then I started seeing people who were black. I'm not a mathematician, but I can tell you, 95 percent of these people that I've seen since Katrina hit have been African-American. The stories they tell; I've seen people separated from their children. I was consoling a mother last night who--her twins; one of the twins was with her, the other twin was not there. I had three teen-agers walk from New Orleans to Jennings, and their feet--I looked at their feet. It reminded me of runaway slaves.

I went to the shelter and decided that I wanted to do clinics for these people who needed insulin who didn't have their insulin, who didn't have their asthma medication, who didn't have this or that. And I have a good friend who I went to medical school with who's African-American whose medical group is going to send me a certain amount of dollars so I can do what I need to do with it as far as buying the drugs, buying the equipment, doing an office. There are a few doctors, once I started saying what was needed in the area, who are going to join me. But you find complacency with the people who are not necessarily African-Americans when you say, `I want to take care of these folks.' Now I...

CHIDEYA: Tell me more about what kind of complacency. Who have you talked to and what...

Dr. FREEMAN: Well, I tried talking to--I mean, I want to set up a clinic. I want to set up a clinic to help these people. They don't have anything. You find complacency. For instance, there's an area called Gretna, right by New Orleans; it's a hospital that I worked at. I was credentialed at that hospital. They were needing doctors to go to New Orleans. They said that at first, and people volunteered. I volunteered. They stopped sending. They said, `We're not going to send doctors anymore.' Do you know why? Because of the reports of shootings.


Dr. FREEMAN: The big black bogeyman syndrome.

CHIDEYA: How does it make you feel to practice medicine at a time like this?

Dr. FREEMAN: I'm angry. I'm angry. I am--I feel blessed that God allows me to do it. I feel driven. I cannot have the same color skin as these people that you see on television that tell you that they have no water, they have no food. These people I've been seeing are two hours away from Baton Rouge. They had had no food.

And I know in my heart, and I don't care if people are upset about it, if this was the East Coast, where we were vacationing in Connecticut this summer or someplace like that, and where the complexion of these people were not black, this would not be happening.

CHIDEYA: What's going to make a change, then?

Dr. FREEMAN: Saying it. Standing up, saying it. For people who are in it, who are actually in the mix, my friend, to say, `Huh-uh.' I'm a physician. I take care of everybody, and I'm glad to do it, happy to do it; I'm blessed to do it.

CHIDEYA: We've talked to a lot of survivors who have lost people and who are separated from family that they don't know where they are and to a lot of people who have family with medical needs. What are the most important things for medical professionals to do right now, in your opinion? You know, we're hearing a lot about diabetics running out of insulin.

Dr. FREEMAN: Absolutely. We need supplies. We need the monies to get supplies. You can talk about going to United Way and going to the Red Cross, and I am not knocking those organizations--Please, do not think that--but if you know doctors, if you know health-care professionals that are in this area, send them the money or means to get the things that we need.

Here's a classic story this last night. A lady from Slidell, which is outside of New Orleans, and she happens to be white, runs out of insulin. She goes to Wal-Mart in my little town and she asks--she says, `I'm out of insulin and I need my insulin refilled.' Now she's seen no doctor, she has no doctor and, of course, the pharmacist gives her the insulin. But she forgets to get her needle. So she calls my ER; I happened to be working, so I give her some needles, right? A black woman who is not driving in the car, being carted by a bus or a sheriff, she runs out of insulin. This is a younger black woman, OK? And she needs her insulin. She is told, `Sorry, ma'am, you need a prescription.'

CHIDEYA: I did read that story myself.

Dr. FREEMAN: Well, this is what happened to me. This is--I didn't tell it. It happened last night. So you must have--there must be thousands of stories like this. This is new. This is what I'm telling you. This is not new--this is not something I reported. This happened to me last night. So she comes to the emergency room because I went and I made the announcement to the shelter, to the people that `I will see you in the emergency room.' I do not care. Until I can make my makeshift clinic, I will utilize where I'm at.

CHIDEYA: How do--where exactly are you practicing? What emergency room is that?

Dr. FREEMAN: It's called Jennings American Legion Hospital. It's a small hospital in Jennings, Louisiana, about 30 miles from Lake Charles and about 90 miles from Baton Rouge.

CHIDEYA: How do your hospital administrators feel about you extending this...

Dr. FREEMAN: I don't know. I don't know, and I...

CHIDEYA: Have you heard anything from them?

Dr. FREEMAN: ...can't say I care.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, but have you had any conversations or people saying you're seeing too many patients or you're seeing too many uninsured patients?

Dr. FREEMAN: It's not--you know, I must be quite honest with you. I told one of my colleagues--I actually said, `I wish somebody would come and tell me that.' I really wish they would. At this particular point in time, I cannot care whether or not they have money or not, and you're not supposed to by law. But I tell people to come.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Freeman, I want to make sure that we stay in touch with you and we continue to catch up with you, but before we let you go for today, I just want to find out what your plans are for the coming days and weeks. You're working on setting up your clinic, you're working on donations.

Dr. FREEMAN: Right. I'm working on setting up a clinic at the shelter in Jennings. I'm also working on, during that between time, trying to get to Gretna, if that's dry, to see if they will allow us to go to Gretna. See, people are going to New Orleans to get people out. Jesse Jackson and Senator Cleo Fields went there and got some students out of Xavier. Good press, wonderful. Wonderful, wonderful. But you can guarantee those students from Xavier--many of them were not suffering from severe medical illness. It's the people that you see, that you hear that are dying outside of the Superdome or the convention center. You see what I'm saying?

CHIDEYA: Would you like to see the government send more airlifts or airlift in more medical personnel?

Dr. FREEMAN: I would like to see the government send more airlifts. I would like to see the government take those doctors who are waving their hands, jumping up and down saying, `I'll go. I'll go. We're not afraid.' They want to go. They're in different parts of Louisiana saying, `We go. We'll go. We're not asking for money. Just get us there. Get us the supplies and get us there.'

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Joe Freeman, thank you so much for talking to us, and we definitely are going to catch up with you in the coming days, so...

Dr. FREEMAN: All right.

CHIDEYA: ...we will.

Dr. FREEMAN: Bye-bye.

CHIDEYA: Thank you.

Dr. FREEMAN: All right.


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