As one of the most hard-hit areas of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard Parish part of the New Orleans metropolitan area has yet to have a functioning hospital.
Condemned after heavy flooding and damage from the storm, the final remains of the 196-bed Chalmette Medical Center were demolished in February 2007. Officials say that the lack of a 24-hour acute care medical center is one of the biggest obstacles in the parishs recovery and it could be more than two years before a new hospital opens. Until then, a few hardy doctors and nurses are treating patients in a temporary clinic located in the parking lot of a boarded-up Wal-Mart.
Originally opened in October 2005 in a single triple-wide trailer, the St. Bernard Health Center provides health care to all St. Bernard residents, regardless of their ability to pay. Funded and founded by the Franciscan Mission of Our Lady Health System in Baton Rouge, the clinic is now housed in 22,000 square feet of mobile barracks with 15 treatment rooms. Brenda Ingargiola, RN, has been with the clinic since its founding and said that it has steadily grown to meet the needs of the community.
We see roughly about 150 patients per day on average but it is climbing each month as more people come back. There are also a lot of transients because were still in the recovery phase with a lot of demolition and construction, said Ingargiola.
Along with wound care for those in the construction trade, the clinic is seeing patients in need of upper respiratory care as well as diabetics and chronic lung patients. There is a staff of five full-time physicians, one part time physician and a nurse practitioner. Other specialists including a urologist, a cardiologist, a surgeon and a dermatologist who make weekly schedule visits to the center. Ingargiola said that they also loan some of their patient rooms to doctors who make regular visits to the area.Brenda Ingargiola, RN, in front of a photo of Hurricane Katrina. St. Bernard’s Parish is marked with a black dot, just left of the eye of the storm.
We have a lot of physicians who want to come back but there just isnt any office space for them. We provide the space and they all see their own patients here. It just makes it more convenient for the residents and the doctors, said Ingargiola.
Ingargiola, who has lived in the region since 1976, lost her own home in the storm and is struggling to get back to a sense of normalcy. She worked at the Chalmette Medical Center then nursed throughout the hurricane season in various locations, providing health care to anyone who came to her. After the waters receded in the area, the Wal-Mart parking lot grew into the center and headquarters for relief operations.
Until recently, the health center used donated supplies and Ingargiola said that nurses and doctors had to adapt to every situation. Even the physicians who in the past had office practices have been expanding their skills on suturing and other wound care.
Its almost like being a paramedic on the streets. You use what you have available or you improvise. Weve all become very versatile, said Ingargiola.
The St. Bernard Parish Council recently appointed a 5-member commission to oversee efforts to build a new hospital. One option is the Franciscan Mission which is offering to help build a $68 million, 60-bed hospital and a $10 million medical office building. Spread over 20 acres, it would take 2 and a half years to build and would be owned by the hospital service district. The other option is a 50-bed hospital to be built, owned and managed by Ochsner Health Systems.