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Homeland Security

Keesler helping restore Gulf Coast medical infrastructure

by Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Louis A. Arana-Barradas

9/13/2005 - GULFPORT, Miss. -- The Air Force joined a unified medical command of local, state and federal agencies aiming to restore primary care services to Mississippi’s ravaged Gulf Coast.

The area needs a unified response since Hurricane Katrina crippled its medical infrastructure and scattered many of its health-care providers, said Col. (Dr.) Deborah Burgess of the 81st Medical Group at nearby Keesler Air Force Base.

More than two weeks after the killer storm, thousands of people still do not have the basic primary medical services they need, she said. Medical providers displaced by the storm are still recovering from the disaster, and many have not been able to return to work.

“So we’re looking to develop a strategy to get the existing infrastructure functioning again,” Dr. Burgess said. “In the meantime, Keesler is also continuing to provide temporary medical care where it’s needed.”

Dr. Burgess, the base’s medical services flight commander, is consulting the joint medical agencies. She said having a military representative make sense for several reasons.

“The military thinks strategically and logistically -- something most civilian communities do not do,” said the nephrologist from Great Neck, N.Y. Plus, providing expertise on how the military analyzes critical situations will help in development of a plan to restore medical services.

“So I’m supplying a strategic and logistics view of the area’s existing capabilities,” she said.

The Federal Emergency Medical Agency, currently headquartered at Keesler, is now directing medical operations in the region. It has deployed disaster medical assistance teams to shore up the damaged health-care infrastructure. One 35-person team from New Jersey set up a temporary care facility in tents outside Gulfport’s Garden Park Medical Center.

The Air Force is helping provide direction to the medical command, said Jason Paluck, the disaster medical assistance team’s medical operations commander.

“The Air Force came in and did health assessments of our operations,” he said. That will help streamline medical care and allow optimal use of care providers.

Keesler health-care providers were first to respond to local needs after the hurricane hit more than two weeks ago. Teams started leaving the base the day after the hurricane made landfall, and they continue providing care where needed.

The base began providing daily assistance because of its commitment to the local communities and because the area was operating in crisis management mode after the storm, Dr. Burgess said. And Airmen are experts at crisis management, she said. Initially, Keesler teams went to shelters. At one shelter set up in an elementary school, a base team attended more than 400 people.

“Now that the crisis management is over, we’re working with area disaster medical assistance teams at various locations,” she said.

The Air Force assistance is necessary, because as the Gulf Port infrastructure continues to heal, more patients are able to get from shelters to hospitals. That has put a huge strain on the FEMA medical assistance teams, said Mr. Paluck, who is from Nyack, N.Y.

He said each temporary care facility is open 24 hours, has triage, urgent care and main treatment areas and a pharmacy. It also has its own logistics and communications workers. Each is set up to handle 250 patients a day. Two physicians and a nurse practitioner work during the day, and one of each at night.

But there are many more patients than the staff can handle, Mr. Paluck said. At the Gulfport facility, for example, the staff is helping 400 patients daily.

“As you can imagine, they are running ragged with that many patients coming through,” he said.

So Keesler doctors, nurses, medical technicians and mental-health specialists joined the disaster medical assistance teams. Mr. Paluck said it only took minutes for the Airmen to start working, checking in and seeing patients. Their help is invaluable, he said.

“They’re doing fantastic,” he said.

Mr. Paluck includes mental-health Airmen in paramedics strike teams. The teams perform health assessments and outreach activities in the remaining shelters.

“We’re bringing medication and supplies,” he said. “And we’re doing mental-health interventions which we have a critical need for.”

Dr. Burgess said about one-third of the patients who arrive at the medical center only need medication refills. Another third arrive with simple bruises or wounds and that need cleaning.

“Maybe they have lacerations to sew up or need a tetanus immunization,” she said.

About another third of the patients arrive seeking help for minor ailments. Those include patients with diarrhea-type illnesses -- though nothing like cholera -- that require intravenous hydration.

“Only 1 percent of patients are critically ill and require hospitalization,” Dr. Burgess said. “Those we’ve seen have had cellulites, pneumonia and diabetes that’s out of control.”

Keith Watters was a patient at the Gulfport facility. He could not sit still for long as he waited in the medical tent for his medications. Five days ago, he ran out of the medications that ease the pain from the four steel pins and wires that helped support his spine.

“I’m in pain,” he said. “I’ve waited and waited until I can’t go no more.”

Like many in the region, the hurricane destroyed Mr. Watters’ home. He said 130-mph winds ripped the roof off his home and “sucked out everything I owned.” Now he depends on the medical help relief agencies are providing.

A retired aircraft mechanic from Gulfport, he said the response seemed slow in the first days after the hurricane struck. He saw people seeking medical help turned away at some locations, or told there were no medications available. And with most local drug stores closed, getting medications is sometimes impossible.

“The Air Force people on the Gulf Coast did provide a lot for the people here,” he said. “They don’t care about the red tape -- they just help you.”

An Air Force colonel, an emergency care specialist, checked Mr. Watters and prescribed medications for his pain and high blood pressure. Mr. Watters found the treatment “good and fast,” and for the first time in six days, he would not be in pain.

“They gave me what I needed,” he said. “This facility is a blessing because of the Air Force doctors.”

Mr. Paluck said his medical team will continue handling medical center patients until the local infrastructure is back online, but he thinks the team will soon be heading home.

Dr. Burgess said Keesler will continue providing support for as long as needed. As a long-time member of the Gulf Coast -- with a huge active duty and retiree population -- helping its neighbors is a Keesler obligation, she said.

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