A few weeks ago I hinted at a Big Project.
Enough waiting: The Project has culminated.
Dr. Scott has left the building.
Or rather, Dr. Scott has closed his doors. His practice is no more. He has had enough, and has left the Gulf Coast.
Some of you reading this blog admired me for staying. Staying wasn't about courage. It was about caring, and hope; nothing more. I still have my caring; indeed, if not, I would have left Mississippi long ago. In fact, that was the only thing keeping me, and it was a damn big thing, almost trumping all else. But the hope has gone.
I'm writing this to explain my actions, not for my own defense, but to give you some insight into the Gulf Coast, post-Katrina. To give insight as to what would make a pediatrician committed to his community finally leave, as to how even hope can be extinguished.
To let you know how much we have failed the Gulf Coast, and how this country as a whole (and especially its leadership) has given up on any pretense of caring. And I use "failed" in the past tense. The damage has been done. Indeed, that is probably the biggest reason why I decided to leave. If no one has come to help yet, and no one is planning to help, then no one will be helping in the future either. (Apologies to those individuals who did come, and gave time and sweat; I hope it's clear that my ire is dedicated to the greater government and the "compassionate conservatives" who support it and believe we on the Gulf Coast just need to hoist ourselves up by our own bootstraps and stop being such ignorant, lazy, greedy whiners.) We had so many chances to turn things around, to set it right. But instead we are condemning New Orleans and Waveland, Mississippi to poverty, third-class status, forever mired in what the rest of the nation thought they were like anyway; ah, the self-fulfilling prophecy. We have doomed a entire generation of children and we have crushed their chances of normalcy, of resiliency, of trust.
When George W. Bush spoke in New Orleans days after Katrina, he promised to do whatever it took to set things right. He gave us hope. He didn't have to say those words. He could have expressed sympathy, mentioned that "the nation stands with you as you rebuild," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But instead he promised action. The terrible tragedy would be met with just as equally awesome a recovery.
Perhaps the only thing worse than no hope is false hope. Hear me out: no hope leads to reasonable expectations. No one is coming; make your plans accordingly. False hope, on the other hand, encourages you to go to the brink, even over it. I may be near the end of my rope, my finances, my energy, but at least the cavalry is coming. Until you finally realize that it isn't. And then it's too late, and the anger comes forth.
Debate all you want about Iraq and if Bush lied about what he knew and how we ended up in that quagmire. I know this: Bushie lied about helping out after Katrina. A year and a half after Katrina we learned what many insiders knew all along. He had the authority to waive the Stafford Act's requirement of a local 5-10% match for recovery efforts. It was waived, by executive order, after Hurricane Andrew. It was waived after 9/11. Not for Katrina.
5-10% may not sound like much. But for Waveland, it was. When 90% of your housing is damaged, it's too much. When every component of infrastructure needs rebuiling--sewer, water, electricity, roads, government buildings, police and fire, should we keep going?--it's too much. When you no longer have a tax base to speak of, it's too much.
Ah, we should have just called it quits at that point. But our president promised to set things right, so we stayed.
The government has done NOTHING for healthcare after Katrina. No, let me clarify: it has done nothing for the private practitioner. There was an uncompensated care pool that helped hospitals from August 29, 2005 through January 31, 2006 (oh! so generous!). Hospitals and nursing homes can apply for part of a $160 million pool just released by Health and Human Services (though allocated from the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005--but what's two years among friends?) Oh, New Orleans also gets $10 million to recruit new "providers" into the area (whatever that term means). The ones already here get a big fat F*** You.
Not even a thank you.
Mere days after Katrina officials on the state and federal levels were being told--from people on the ground--what needed to be done. Increase Medicaid reimbursement for pediatricians treating Katrina survivors (both the ones remaining on the Gulf Coast and the ones dealing with the flood of evacuees in Baton Rouge, Houston, and the like). Reimburse for the surge of uninsured patients. Give government resources such as trailers for office space so local MDs can start seeing patients again. None of these suggestions--or others--has been even considered, let alone debated or implemented.
Here's my practice situation: since Katrina my office rent has doubled (I had to move out of my first office after it was destroyed). The rest of the overhead hasn't gone down any, what with added "fuel surcharges," inflation, and the like. My practice was 65% Medicaid--same as before Katrina, though it was still enough to keep the practice thriving beforehand. But the number of self-pay tripled. And the overall numbers? Not as many kids here now. And there won't be for a long while, if there is no affordable housing for families, and it's not the best environment for families anyway.
Oh, in the meantime, I just got the bill for my wind insurance premium, under the state wind pool. $6500. That is not a typo. Good thing we sold the house--though our realtor said we were miraculously lucky, since it was apparently the first house to sell in Waveland this year. Yes, one home sale in six months. No one wants to buy housing, no one wants to move in anymore, and certainly no one can afford the insurance to stay.
Prediction: look for the number of foreclosures to skyrocket in the next 12 months.
And then there is the obvious psychological stress and burnout. Seeing the debris every single day, the construction vehicles, the abandoned homes still waiting to be demolished, the streets being torn up for new sewer pipes and electric conduits. No relief, ever. Granted, everyone in town is in the same boat, which means at least we all understand each other's plight, but then again, it means it's the number one topic of conversation every day.
It hit home when I went to Washington last month for a conference. On the Metro, I didn't hear people asking, "how's your home coming along?" No one on the street mentioned about SBA, FEMA, or insurance. Oh, and things were green; trees weren't snapped; residential lots had nice houses, not abandoned concrete slabs; there were children playing in yards; malls and stores and farmer's markets to visit, restaurants to enjoy; the things that make life nice. That's not life on the Gulf Coast. The Gulf Coast is now a toxic environment.
If anyone from the Gulf Coast reads this, they might protest I am overlooking the good, the progress. Yes, the Coast is being rebuilt. The Bay St Louis-Pass Christian bridge just reopened in May, to much fanfare. (It may sound silly for those of you out of the area, but the importance of that bridge cannot be overstated; it's a real milestone in the recovery of both towns.) But let me remind you that the bridge took 21 months to open. The CSX railroad bridge across the same channel was rebuilt in only 6 months, by private industry. The Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge isn't set to open until this November. Here we are two years after Katrina and we're still talking about rebuilding basic infrastructure. This is inexcusable. If we're at this point after all this time, it will be another 10 years before we're anywhere close to a normal town, a normal life.
Or longer. I've heard that Homestead, Florida still hasn't recovered from Andrew, now some 20 years ago. I worry that Waveland and New Orleans might never fully recover now. The people with the means are leaving, or working themselves into debt and exhaustion. The only ones left will be the working poor. Maybe some big condo developers will come in--though that in turn would utterly destroy everything that Waveland was.
And maybe the answer is, "so what?" So what if condos come in? Situations change, towns change. So what if Dr. Scott leaves town? (There are still two other pediatricians around.)
I think these things do matter. I do think my leaving has negative consequences for the community. I don't say this simply because I want to feel valued or self-important; I think even if one of the other pediatricians left instead the children of our town would be affected, and for the worse. The community as a whole is worse off.
We have the means to fix these problems, at our fingertips. But they require money. I decided to leave town for many reasons, but finances were at the top. I simply couldn't keep the doors open anymore--and I had the opportunity to leave for a better (and more pleasant and less stressful) life elsewhere.
Bush didn't say that we would rebuild New Orleans "if the budget allowed." I don't see Bush hemming and hawing about the bill for the war in Iraq. We can spend over a trillion dollars on a war of dubious necessity. But we can't find the money to restore healthcare or infrastructure to our own Gulf Coast.
Forgive me for playing the martyr, but I feel like I've been caring for the children of Waveland and Bay St Louis on my own back and on my own dime. I can't do it by myself anymore, and if no one is coming to help, it can longer be my problem. I have to think of the well-being of my own children, of my wife, and of myself.
This blog will continue; there's still more Katrina Story to tell, not to mention more insights into the whole big exciting world of medicine and pediatrics. And I won't forget those I've left behind. In fact, the intersection of disasters and medicine promises to continue to occupy my professional life for a while to come. But it won't be from Waveland, Mississippi. I leave the Gulf Coast with a heavy heart, but I'm excited to be leaving and starting new.
Bay St. Louis Pediatrics
February 22, 2004 - June 15, 2007