I want to echo the truth of what is written in this article. This will probably be a lengthy message and I hope you will indulge me. A New Orleans native (grew up in the 9th ward), I spent much of February this year back in my home of NOLA. First I visited with my father who is not well, and then volunteered at a week long free health fair sponsored by the NO City Dept. of Health and a group named Remote Access Medicine (which normally provides free medical care in remote third world countries- pretty much what New Orleans seems to be these days).
I found it difficult to believe what I saw. I am no stranger to the impoverished and sick. I’ve worked at Charity Hospital in NO and my dissertation field work was done in the city’s public housing projects. I’ve also worked in public health care in San Francisco, San Francisco General and Highland Hospital in Berkeley.
I have never seen so many desperately sick people in one place in my life while working at the health fair. Diabetics who hadn’t had insulin for months, asthmatics gasping, persons with untreated emphysema, persons with severe arthritis trying to support themselves by hanging over police barricades all standing in a daily line of 1000+ people (no
exaggeration)waiting to get inside the Audubon Zoo where free medical, dental, and ophthalmic services were being dispensed. People had been camping out, some since 3am, to get a place in line. Public transportation is very limited right now, so who knows how many people couldn’t get there?
There was the woman whose foot had swollen to at least twice its size because she had stepped on a nail trying to clear out her house and didn’t know where to go to be treated. She had been “hoping it would get better by itself.” A young man came in septic, barely able to stand with an abscessed tooth because he hadn’t been able to get care. Most of what we saw that week could have been easily preventable, and probably would have been minor injuries or illness episodes, if there had only been a readily available health care system for the people to access.
My job the first day was to “walk the line” of people waiting to be seen to determine who was near passing out and who need EMS. Many people did faint, the sick, the elderly, people who just couldn’t remain upright any more in the heat. At least one elderly woman was treated for head injuries and taken away (we weren’t certain to where) after fainting in
line. There was no water or food for the people the first day although it had been promised. A small group of us went and confiscated a very limited supply of water intended for the health workers, and found ourselves in the truly awful position of deciding who in the crowd needed it most.
Few of the illnesses we saw that week would not be as severe as they were if there had been an adequately functioning health care system or even emergency relief system in place. There is little health care available, the system is overtaxed, almost no one we saw had health insurance. These were not all chronically indigent persons. Most were employed or formerly employed persons. There were persons of all colors and ethnicities, all ages. I personally met with at least five schoolteachers, who had lost everything, including their jobs (few schools are open right now) and so lost their health insurance. They had
not been to a doctor in months despite chronic illnesses. Cancer patients not know where or how to get follow up treatment (if it was available). It goes without saying that mental health problems were (and are) the norm both among patients and New Orleans health providers.
Why? New Orleans is supposed to be a part of the U.S. It presently feels more like an abandoned colony. Most of these people are taxpayers. People repeatedly lamented that they felt abandoned by the government. I am a federal worker but volunteered as a private citizen. People asked me repeatedly, that when I got back to Washington, I let everyone know about them so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. The question was “how can they [the nation] forget us, don’t they understand what’s happening down here?” I ask myself this question constantly. My heart has broken just about daily since Katrina but never so much until I
was face to face with my fellow Orleanians’ unnecessary disease and suffering. We at the health fair didn’t even approach seeing everyone who needed services. The people of New Orleans are unnecessarily suffering and dying. I don’t think it has to be this way. The city (and in truth the whole region) desperately needs help. The floodwaters are gone, but Katrina is definitely not over. The disaster is still happening.
Thank you very much for reading this, and I hope it wasn’t too much of a rant. I’m having a difficult time coming to terms with what I experienced. Please don’t forget my hometown.
National Cancer Institute
I do not think that it has to be this way.