Yale doctors aid Katrina victims

Doctors at the Yale School of Medicine and Yale-New Haven Hospital are mobilizing to help victims of Hurricane Katrina by sending medical supplies, offering University and hospital resources for displaced students and patients, and traveling south to provide care directly.

Dr. Brian Swirsky, a professor of internal medicine who sees patients at Yale-New Haven, flew out of Tweed-New Haven Airport on Monday morning with a team of doctors headed for Biloxi, Miss., to treat the overflow of patients left without care because of Katrina.

Swirsky’s son said Swirsky and his team were working at a triage center in a church on the Mississippi-Louisiana border as of Tuesday.

“He said it’s horrible,” Swirsky’s son said. “When he walks down the street, there are people reaching out and asking for shots and medicine.”

The eight doctors accompanying Swirsky, who specializes in cardiology, include Dr. Kevin Twohig, Dr. John Irving and Dr. Jim Morgan, professors at the medical school specializing in internal medicine, orthopedics and pediatrics, respectively.

Traveling in a donated jet, the team carried with them water, an EKG and loads of other medical supplies donated by the Hospital of St. Raphael, Milford Hospital and Yale-New Haven, said Fran Bernstein, Swirsky’s practice administrator.

Mississippi Hospital Association spokeswoman Shawn Lea said a number of cities in the region have had their populations double overnight, with hospitals and shelters bursting at the seams.

“In Jackson, for example, the emergency rooms are overflowing, in most cases with people who need chemotherapy or dialysis, and diabetics,” Lea said. “To combat that, hospitals have asked people to use ERs only for serious emergencies.”

Because about 6,000 hospital beds were lost in New Orleans and other Louisiana cities last week, she said there is a high demand for treatment in the temporary hospitals set up in neighboring states.

“The relief efforts are being coordinated in great part by the Department of Health and Human Services,” Lea said. “It is important for relief to be organized and coordinated … but given the number of patients requiring care, it is clear that we will need all the help we can get.”

Swirsky’s trip was approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it was Swirsky who organized the trip and made contact for approval, Bernstein said, not the federal agency.

School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said the medical school’s efforts will be directed by national organizations. The director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, held an emergency conference call with deans of medical schools around the country last week, alerting them that volunteers and clinical facilities may be needed in the near future, Alpern said.

Alpern said the medical school will make doctors available for patients who need to come north for special care that might not be accessible in overcrowded hospitals near the Gulf Coast.

“From what we understand, the majority of patients need care because of pre-existing health problems, not necessarily because of injuries related to the hurricane,” he said.

But because of the distance, Alpern said, he doubts there will be a large flux of patients traveling to New Haven.

Deputy Dean for Clinical Affairs David Leffell ’77, the point of contact between NIH and the medical school, said the federal organization requested a list of physicians volunteering to travel south, in an e-mail sent Sunday.

Emergency medics, pediatricians, orthopedists and surgeons are in the highest demand, Leffell said.

The School of Medicine does not plan to send physicians until the NIH makes a specific request, he said.

“Though there is a desire to rush and be immediately helpful, we are choosing to wait until we’re asked for help,” Leffell said. “We can give the best assistance in an organized fashion.”

Pediatrics and OB-GYN professor Dr. Joshua Copel said he has been working with his department chair, Dr. Charles Lockwood, to organize a road trip bringing gynecological surgeons, pediatricians, obstetricians and gynecologists to Southern states where medical care is stretched thin.

Copel said he sent his colleagues an e-mail yesterday to recruit volunteers but does not plan to make the trip unless it is sanctioned by a federal agency, such as the DHHS or FEMA.

“I know there will be a strong response based on people’s generosity in the past,” Copel said.

Alpern said third- and fourth-year medical students who are displaced from Southern universities, such as Tulane and Louisiana State University, might be able to finish their educations at Yale.

Though some students have individually contacted Yale to organize transfers, Alpern said, the school is waiting for students’ home universities to sanction the transfers first. The Association of American Medical Colleges would mediate contact between Yale and other medical schools should the schools ask for assistance, he said.

“We are trying to avoid anarchy,” Alpern said.

A trickier issue is clearing space for displaced medical school graduates who need to complete their residencies, Alpern said.

“We have limits imposed on us about how many residents we can have at a time,” he said. “In addition, we have set amounts of money from the federal government for training residents, and that would have to be shifted.”

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education is currently monitoring Southern schools and would coordinate the transfer of residents to Yale and other medical centers should the need arise, Alpern said.

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