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Keesler hospital recovery picks up

by Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Air Force Print News

9/15/2005 - SAN ANTONIO  -- Part of the huge medical center at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. -- closed by Hurricane Katrina damage -- could open sooner than base officials estimated less than a week ago.

The section, on the hospital’s first floor, could open in as little as two months, said Brig. Gen. (Dr.) James J. Dougherty, 81st Medical Group commander. But it will still take at least six months to completely reopen the Air Force’s second largest medical center, he said.

The hurricane knocked out the center’s ability to provide tertiary care -- highly specialized skills, technology and support services. But being able to open even a small section of the center would increase the ability to “provide limited outpatient care,” he said.

“We went from being a flagship organization -- a medical center -- down to just a small fraction of our capability,” he said. “And it’s really frustrating for us to not have the whereabouts to be able to reach out more quickly and to more people.”

But like everyone along the Gulf Coast, Keesler is still reeling from the affects of the hurricane’s fury. Some people have lost everything, and many remain displaced. Some have not been able to return to their homes.

“I have two-thirds of my people scattered all over the country right now,” the general said. “As soon as they start coming back, we’ll be able to have more care available.”

In the meantime, only base servicemembers and their families can get care at the hospital’s temporary location. They receive primary care at an expeditionary medical system 10-bed hospital set up in tents in a parking lot near the center.

However, the more than 50,000 retirees in the Gulf Coast area still cannot receive care at the base hospital. They must find care wherever it is available locally or at other military facilities in the area, but Dr. Dougherty said he and his staff have been making arrangements with local hospitals to help as many people as possible, as soon as possible.

“Every day we sit down and try to think of new ideas on how we can take another step here, or try to set up some kind of temporary capability somewhere else. And we’ll keep working on that until we can get our own hospital back,” he said.

For example, Keesler officials have worked an arrangement with the medical facility at the Gulfport Naval Construction Center, about 10 miles from the base. The medical facility is seeing some of Keesler’s patients. In turn, some Keesler medics are working there.

And, Dr. Dougherty said, a plan is in the works to further ease the lack of medical services in the Gulf Coast area, where the hurricane devastated the medical infrastructure. It calls for using two other medical facilities -- the Veterans Affairs Medical Center Biloxi and Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas -- to help provide services to Keesler patients.

“We’re almost there (to making the plan happen),” he said.

The VA allowed Keesler to set up a pharmacy at the hospital. Another part of the plan involves sending pharmacy troops to Wilford Hall to set up a Keesler pharmacy there.

Dr. Dougherty said the intent is that when a person calls the Keesler 1-800 number for a refill, the call will forward to Lackland. The Airmen there will fill the prescription and send it, overnight, to the VA hospital, where the patients pick it up.

To make it easier for patients in the area, Tricare insurance officials have stopped requiring patients to get approval before seeing a medical provider outside the Tricare system. Beneficiaries can seek and go directly to care without calling anybody, Dr. Dougherty said.

“And Tricare has suspended the co-pay,” he said. That option lasts until Sept. 30.

The hospital continues to expand its limited capabilities. The base has been in contact with all the hospitals in the region, said Maj. (Dr.) Rob Thaxton, the Keesler hospital’s medical director of emergency services.

“We have a close working relationship with all the outlying hospitals,” Dr. Thaxton said, “and we’ve been able to transport patients, as needed, to those facilities.”

And, Dr. Thaxton said, “We continue looking around and trying to come up with options.”

As that happens, work continues on the Keesler hospital. The hurricane’s tidal surge flooded its basement, which housed its entire power distribution center, including all backup controls.

“Everything in the basement was destroyed,” Dr. Dougherty said.

More than 150 contractors are working to clean up the basement and restore primary and backup power sources. Without a backup power source, the hospital cannot provide more definitive care.

To reopen, the hospital needs an entire top to bottom scrubbing. When it lost electrical power, the heat and humidity allowed mold and mildew and bacteria to grow and “get into the walls and ducts -- everywhere,” Dr. Dougherty said. It will take a major effort “to go in and make sure we get all that stuff out of there.”

In the meantime, hospital workers continue helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency with medical relief off the base. As they return to the ravaged base, medics will return to work. Each one will help bring the hospital back on line.

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