See how the Hancock Medical Center was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Like a patient coming out of major surgery, the hospital serving this and neighboring towns is slowly recovering.
And like a chief surgeon, Hal Leftwich, administrator of the Hancock Medical Center (http://www.hmc.org/), is watching his patient closely. Left homeless by Katrina like so many other locals, he is living in a FEMA trailer behind the hospital, next to two “dorm” trailers for ER nurses and doctors.
He also was at the public hospital when Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge propelled 6 feet of water into the hospital’s ground floor. So, too, were 80 staff and 34 patients for whom ambulances were not available to evacuate in time.
All survived, but the hospital suffered an estimated $11 million in damage to the building and $9 million in equipment losses -- most of which was not covered by insurance. The saltwater intrusion ruined everything it touched, from beds to a $250,000 X-ray machine to the $300,000 telecommunications system, Leftwich says, adding that the damage “was a lesson in why you don’t want to have your equipment on the ground floor.”
Twenty-five other Mississippi hospitals sustained an estimated total of $161 million in Katrina damage, but none as much as Hancock Medical Center, says Shawn Lea, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Hospital Association.
Now, nearly four months after the storm, painters and carpenters are only now putting the finishing touches on the ground floor. And because it's a hospital, they're having to go the extra mile -- or in this case extra feet. Instead of cutting the sheetrock out at the water line, they're replacing entire sheets to make sure no traces of toxic mold remain.
Only a dozen beds filled on average
Unfortunately for the hospital's bottom line, the workers aren't disturbing too many patients. Prior to Katrina, the hospital used an average of 60 of its 104 beds at any given time, but that’s down to 12 since so many Hancock County residents still are living outside the area.
That has translated to staff cutbacks. Sixty-seven employees were given pink slips in late November, leaving about 180 working full-time or part-time – a far cry from the 500 employed before Katrina. The remainder of those are either on call and not working regularly or have relocated.
The hospital, which is owned by the county but is self-sustaining financially, also faces competition from free health clinics that have opened up around the area.
That impacts the hospital as well as doctors in private practice.
Leftwich says that five of the 25 doctors in Hancock County who had full-time practices in Hancock County before Katrina still haven't returned. “It’s important that as doctors return, the clinics go away,” Leftwich says.
First surgery performed
On the upside, doctors performed the first surgery at the hospital since Katrina just after the three-month mark. Leftwich says that in itself was a “real hurdle … probably the biggest of the hurdles” since it required plenty of “what if” moments to make sure everything was ready.
The hospital has also received some donations, as well as loans of expensive equipment from manufacturers. Its foundation is continuing to solicit donations, which can be earmarked either for the hospital, staff or doctors, via its Web site.
FEMA also will pay to replace destroyed equipment, though Leftwich says the valuation of the used equipment is much less than the actual replacement costs.
As a result, the hospital expects a “multi-million dollar” loss in 2006, Leftwich projects a return to solvency in 2007.
It could be two years before the hospital is back to pre-Katrina levels, but Leftwich takes comfort in the fact that he is no longer spending all his time trying to figure out how to meet basic needs – like restoring the restrooms. The hospital was left without any working bathrooms after the storm and there was a collective sigh of relief when the portable toilets arrived five days after the storm, he recalls.
“That,” Leftwich says, “was a real boost in morale.”
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