There were some serious problems with the evacuation of some hospital patients and nursing-home residents after Hurricane Katrina. We owe it to victims to find out what happened and why, and I am sure we will. It is my hope, however, that these tragic events don't completely overshadow another story, which is the tremendous response of so many health workers and organizations during the immediate crisis. As our Sept. 12 issue showed, there were numerous stories of heroism. Physicians, nurses, orderlies and maintenance people were willingly doing jobs they never envisioned having to do in conditions few of us could tolerate. There were chief executive officers, chief operating officers and others performing with cool focus and steely courage amid the chaos. There was life-saving assistance from healthcare organizations around the region and the nation. The focus was on patients and getting them out alive, or on keeping services open as long as possible.
All of it showed true dedication to service.
After Katrina, we can add another element to the Health Leadership Alliance's new compendium of competencies for healthcare leaders (Sept. 12, p. 6): intestinal fortitude. Healthcare is filled with people who don't shy away from tough situations such as those involved in the aftermath of this hurricane. I couldn't put down the magazines and newspapers with their heart-wrenching accounts of healthcare workers performing incredible feats under unbelievable circumstances.
Health workers weren't alone in responding admirably, of course. People of all kinds got involved in rescue missions or providing food and shelter. People in cities around the country offered money, refuge and hope. We are so fortunate to have these kinds of individuals in our country. I salute them for personifying the American spirit with their goodness, courage and sacrifice.
Unfortunately too many observers seem to relish seizing on the bad and the ugly, looking for scapegoats and pointing fingers as to who is to blame for an unprecedented natural disaster. I wonder how many of these distant Monday-morning quarterbacks have bothered to volunteer to take in some of the victims who need housing, clothing and a place to catch their breath?
In the midst of the pandemonium, local healthcare leaders took charge of the situation. Several told their stories to this magazine, giving our readers priceless information for future disaster response. Les Hirsch had been on the job as president and CEO of Touro Infirmary in New Orleans for only eight days when Katrina hit. Can you imagine starting a new job, not knowing where everything is yet and finding yourself in the middle of the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history? Hirsch could tell the authors of that new leadership directory a little something about communication. In his Op-Ed piece last week (Sept. 12, p. 20), Hirsch tells of how he and his staff were working with virtually no lights, no air conditioning and no elevator service. "The only person we were able to make consistent contact with became one of the true heroes for Touro: John Matessino, president of the Louisiana Hospital Association. John became our only link -- and my lifeline -- to the outside world" (See Commentary, p. 34).
Hirsch wrote: "Our first priority was our patients, so we started contacting hospitals that could take them." Luckily, other hospitals did volunteer to take the patients from Touro and Hirsch was able to close the doors and leave with his colleagues at 1 p.m. on Sept. 1.
Jim Montgomery, the president and CEO of Tulane University Hospital and Clinic, was already dealing with major problems his facility was facing when things got desperate: "On Sept. 1, there were just a few small helicopters, and we had some patients to move, but the process was slow. A frantic medical director of critical care showed up by boat from Charity Hospital with a major problem: Charity was in a meltdown. He had 21 critical-care patients, many of whom had been hand-ventilated for two days, and he couldn't get any help from the state. `Can you help me?' he asked. This was a tough question, but it had only one answer. We would give them access to the small aircraft." After a period in which things "didn't look good," a large helicopter arrived that carried 50 to 60 people at a time. Eventually, everyone was evacuated.
Healthcare organizations elsewhere played a huge role in the rescue. Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in Houston launched a massive operation to evacuate critical patients from Ochsner Clinic Foundation. Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, La., coordinated the evacuation of hundreds of infants and mothers. Hospital alliance Premier tapped into its group purchasing and networking expertise to coordinate the flow of supplies to its member hospitals. Its 30-member disaster-support team ensured the delivery of medical and personal supplies as well as food, water and ice to 14 member hospitals in the region, said Stacey Brown, a Premier spokeswoman. In addition, Premier was coordinating supplies to the Houston Astrodome and the Cajundome in Lafayette, La.
Our industry has come under fire for lack of caring and inefficiency. Some of the criticism is warranted. But when there are such examples of caring and dedication as we see in New Orleans, they must be acknowledged.
Let's recognize sacrifice,