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Hospitals don’t let flooding, wind, waves stop service

Coast hospitals took a beating during Katrina.

Hancock Medical Center in Bay St. Louis, for example, was completely shut down for a month after floodwaters swept through the entire first floor, effectively taking out the emergency room, operating room, intensive care unit, obstetrics, the laboratory, imaging, cardiopulmonary, medical records, materials management, dietary, administration and more.

Hancock Medical Center and other Coast hospitals have worked literally day and night to repair damages knowing that the services they offer to the community are now more critical than ever.

“Our hospital’s amazing progress during the past three months is due to a team effort of employees, most of whom lost their own homes,” said Hancock Medical Center administrator Hal W. Leftwich, DBA, FACHE. “By pulling together, we created an unstoppable energy. Our nurses, technicians, housekeepers and managers worked side-by-side to salvage records, equipment and supplies during the first two weeks. A professional restoration company removed and replaced walls and flooring, and our staff took over painting and stocking shelves. This spirit and work ethic allowed us to reopen the emergency room in early October, restoring a vital health link to our community.”

A 25-bed nursing unit opened October 28, and work on the operating suites and recovery areas is nearly complete.
Leftwich said nearly all of Hancock Medical Center’s active medical staff is seeing patients again, most in temporary offices. Included are specialties of internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics, OB/GYN, general surgery, cardiology and podiatry.

Also open are the hospital’s rural health clinics in Kiln and Pearlington, and outpatient rehab services and medical offices in Diamondhead.

A hundred days after Katrina hit, Memorial Hospital at Gulfport had all of its hospital beds full, and was still experiencing higher than normal rates of emergency room use.

“Our patient census has consistently grown since the passing of the storm,” said Diane Gallagher, director of community and corporate relations, Memorial Hospital of Gulfport. “We are operating with fewer beds than pre Katrina because we relocated our inpatient rehab into the hospital. We are currently running about 285 beds on our main campus.”
Memorial Hospital housed a lot of employees in the weeks after the storm. Many lost their homes and had no where else to go.

Currently a lot of staff have managed to make arrangements to live with friends and family, or obtain FEMA or other housing, but in early December about 20 employees were still staying at the hospital.

The storm has taken a toll on staffing. Five physicians and 250 other employees have left since Katrina hit. The hospital had 2,400 employees prior to Katrina.

“To some extent, losing that much staff puts a crunch on the hospital,” Gallagher said. “We are working to replace them.”

The hospital is also helping employees cope with life after Katrina by offering counseling sessions with professionals. They have also established an employee recovery fund that has received donations from people all over the country.

Memorial is in the process of filming storm stories so people can tell what they have gone through.

“It has been a good process for history archival purposes, and for people to be able to talk about what happened to them both personally and at the hospital,” Gallagher said.

At another Gulfport hospital, Garden Park Medical Center, employees actually saw waves and white caps just outside their windows during Hurricane Katrina, but continued to care for patients during and after the storm. About three inches of water soaked Garden Park’s first floor and prompted ongoing renovations at the 130-bed facility located in Orange Grove, which is six miles north of the Mississippi Sound. The water at Garden Park came from the overflow of a nearby creek and from Bayou Bernard in Harrison County that also damaged stores in the Crossroads Shopping Center across the street from the hospital.

“We were able to help our community quickly begin the healing process with the help of many people who came together in this time of crisis,” said Garden Park CEO William Peaks. “Dedicated employees and physicians responded heroically during and after the storm.”

Within two days after the storm, FEMA’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team set up tents in front of the hospital to help with hundreds of patients seeking healthcare in the aftermath of the storm.

In the first three weeks following the storm, Garden Park:

• Provided over 25,000 meals to patients, staff, public safety officials, and the community;

• Provided support to the Mississippi State Health Department, emergency officials and surrounding businesses;

• Housed Mississippi Highway Patrolmen from around the state;

• Provided care to over 5,400 patients in the DMAT tent and hospital emergency room;

• Provided tetanus shots to businesses and individuals within the community;

• Provided food and shower facilities for many emergency relief workers, public safety officials and employees of local businesses;

• Housed more than 100 employees, physicians and their family members who lost homes or had significant damage to their homes and secured temporary trailers to help them transition to more permanent housing.

Peaks said three months after the storm, Garden Park continues to help the Coast heal as it too rebuilds from storm damage. Most physicians have gotten back on their feet. Many are in temporary buildings as they renovate their primary locations.

“A dedicated and committed staff of healthcare workers answers the call every day at Garden Park and each new day is another step toward normalcy,” Peaks said. “Everyone is recovering in some way, so people and businesses on the Coast are facing the many challenges left by Katrina. One of those challenges for businesses is maintaining staff from the decreased population in the area, and another is making sure employees are receiving the help they need.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Garden Park’s corporate owner, HCA – The Healthcare Company, has provided millions of dollars in aid to employees in Mississippi and Louisiana through “The HCA Hope Fund.” The Hope Fund helps employees in crisis by offering money grants. Grants average $2,000 and are based on the employees’ individual circumstances, family size and available resources.

“With help from HCA, Garden Park has weathered the storm and expects to be a major part of the healing process as the Coast rebuilds,” Peaks said.

Biloxi Regional Medical Center has been working to make hurricane repairs while assisting employees who experienced complete or substantial loss with locating temporary housing, as well as providing other types of assistance.

“Repairs to the exterior of Biloxi Regional Medical Center continue with great progress being seen daily,” said CEO Tim Mitchell. “We have been able to assist our employees. It is truly amazing to see the City of Biloxi working so diligently to get the city cleaned in such an efficient manner.

“A far as the physicians go, we do hear them say regularly that they are not seeing as many patients as before Katrina. The difficulties many of them will be faced with are patients with no insurance or their insurance benefits running out soon.”

Gulf Coast Medical Center, a 189-bed acute care facility located in Biloxi, sustained considerable wind and water damage during Hurricane Katrina. The upper floors facing the Gulf were the hardest hit. Shortly after the storm, the hospital’s management worked with a FEMA Disaster Medical Assistance Team from Massachusetts to establish emergency care, outpatient services and pharmaceutical supplies. Gulf Coast Medical Center opened a limited number of inpatient beds and began receiving regular patients on September 12. The hospital is repairing damaged areas as quickly as possible.

“Currently the Gulf Coast Medical Center has 28 staffed acute care beds and 14 psychiatric beds available to the community,” said spokesperson Rhonda Parker. “We expect to return to full service by mid to late January. Inpatient and outpatient surgical services as well as hyperbaric/wound therapy, respiratory services, cardiac diagnostics, radiology services, sleep studies and lab services are available. As we rebuild and grow, we look forward to continuing our leadership role of providing quality care to the community.”

In Jackson County, Ocean Springs Hospital and Singing River Hospital, both part of Singing River Hospital System (SRHS), have been fully operational before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

“We have lost very few physicians, but have also gained several, making our medical staffs larger than they were before the storm,” said Richard Lucas, SRHS director of communications. “A small percentage of employees have also left since Hurricane Katrina, but positions are being filled and staffing needs are being met. Our staff has been fortunate to receive help from volunteer nurses and physicians from all over the nation who have provided relief in several different nursing areas.”

Lucas said both hospitals remain very busy, especially Ocean Springs Hospital, where there has been a need to add an additional 60 beds.

“The influx of construction and relief workers has added to our patient census, but we are handling the extra load effectively and continuing to provide the best care possible for our patients,” Lucas said. “Several weeks following the storm, Biloxi Regional had to close several of their operating rooms, so many patients needing surgery went to Ocean Springs Hospital, keeping the surgery suites extremely busy.”

SRHS’ Heartburn Treatment Center has also seen an increase in patients because the stress of the storm’s aftermath has led to increased acid reflux, causing many people to seek help for their heartburn. Behavioral Health Services, which has served Singing River Hospital for several years, has also expanded to Ocean Springs, seeing a great need to help those in Western Jackson County.

Hurricane Katrina delayed the renovations to the front lobby at Singing River Hospital, as well as the renovation of the labor, delivery and recovery suites. However, Lucas said those projects are on their way to completion, and are scheduled to open in January or soon thereafter.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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