January 20, 2006

Storm-tossed residents find a home at VUSM

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Fred Kirchner, M.D., associate dean of Graduate Medical Education, right, talks with Jonathan MacCabe, M.D., a resident in Cardiology who transferred to Vanderbilt from Tulane after Hurricane Katrina.
photo by Dana Johnson

Storm-tossed residents find a home at VUSM

Fred Kirchner, M.D., right, and Johathan MacCabe, M.D., talk on the plaza.
photo by Dana Johnson

Fred Kirchner, M.D., right, and Johathan MacCabe, M.D., talk on the plaza.
photo by Dana Johnson

Sixteen medical students working to complete residencies in New Orleans when their facilities were destroyed by the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in U.S. history have carried on their training at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Considering the devastation and losses some have both witnessed and experienced, compounded by the uncertainty of rebuilding or starting over in other cities, their lives since Hurricane Katrina struck have truly been in a whirlwind.

“New Orleans is a great city and hopefully it will get back on its feet,” said Jennifer McGee, M.D., a General Surgery resident from Tulane who returned to her husband and home in New Orleans just before Christmas.

“It will probably take a little while but I think it is going to recover. People there are pretty resilient.”

McGee, a 33-year-old Cookeville, Tenn., native, evacuated critical care patients from Charity Hospital to Tulane through the flooded streets of New Orleans last August.

“We had limited resources and there was some difficulty with communication with FEMA, so physicians at Charity were helping to evacuate critical care patients over to Tulane,” she said.

“There was 10 feet of water … the National Guard was available to some extent to help with the transport and we were in amphibious vehicles. We needed physicians on board and the patients were getting airlifted from the Tulane helipad, which was really a parking garage.”

Patient evacuations from Charity Hospital were halted Sept. 1 after the facility came under sniper fire twice.

“I will be very honest, it has been a little tough,” McGee said of her transition to Vanderbilt a month later. “For personal reasons I have been a little disheveled.”

“Everyone at Vanderbilt has been very accommodating, very receiving. If I had to go any place this is one of the best places I could have gone.”

Hurricane Katrina breached the levee system that protected New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, which subsequently flooded the city with water mostly from the lake.

Some residents found their homes destroyed, although others were thankful to find minimal damage and their belongings still intact.

Cardiology resident Jonathan MacCabe, M.D., was moonlighting in Thibodeaux, a small town southwest of New Orleans, the day the hurricane hit. He said he barely made it out of town before the storm, driving 20 hours through evacuation traffic to his hometown of Knoxville.

“My wife and two children left a couple of days before the hurricane,” he recalled. “Our house was a total loss, we lived in the Northshore area of Slidell. The eye of the hurricane passed over our area and the storm surge brought about six feet of water into our house, despite the fact that we live a couple of miles inland and 5-10 feet above sea level.”

MacCabe said he hopes to complete his last year of cardiology fellowship in Nashville.

“Unfortunately, the population of New Orleans has not recovered, and the clinical experience there is limited,” he said.

Residents from Tulane University and the Ochsner Clinic Foundation (OCF) underwent an extensive approval process overseen by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) before receiving temporary assignments, said Fred Kirchner, M.D., VUMC Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education.

“These folks were in their residency training program somewhere along the line and it was obviously disrupted,” he said.

“There was a need, until they kind of regrouped, to try and not have a break in their training. So the word went out and, although the visiting residents comprised seven specialties, virtually all our training program directors offered to provide temporary training positions. Also, a number of current and local Vanderbilt alumni offered housing.”

Urology resident Chris Wolter, M.D., had already been accepted for a fellowship at Vanderbilt starting in July, but came earlier due to the situation in Louisiana.

“I had to leave behind the first home I ever bought, a place I loved living in. I also have been abruptly separated from some very close friends, people that I have been through a lot with,” Wolter said.

“The transition was definitely made easier by my new department. All my co-residents and the faculty have been extremely empathetic, accepting and welcoming.”

Orthopaedic Surgery resident Jeremy Oryhon,M.D., was on call at Children's Hospital in New Orleans when the storm hit, where he worked to discharge as many patients as possible so they could evacuate. He and his wife packed the car early that Sunday morning and began an evacuation north toward Chicago.

“I really thought we would only be gone three days when we left so we only brought a couple changes of clothes and left our cat in New Orleans,” he said. “Basically we stayed with my parents in Chicago all of September. I was glued to my e-mail and the Internet trying to find out info about our residency program and our condo.”

Oryhon and his father drove back to New Orleans when Jefferson Parish re-opened a week after the storm and found that the condo had some minor roof damage but had otherwise weathered the storm.

They took the cat and some more clothes back to Chicago as the wait continued.

“After a long wait with very poor communication in the interim, my residency program decided to assign me to a temporary position at Vanderbilt,” Oryhon said.

“I once again was extremely lucky in being assigned here as opposed to some of the alternatives. I have been very happy here since.”

Rich Barnett, M.D., a fourth-year Otolaryngology resident from Tulane, was on vacation from his rotation at the Veterans Administration hospital in Biloxi, Miss., when the hurricane hit. He immediately rented a car in Chicago and drove through the night to Biloxi, where his parents live.

“I found my parents' home covered with trees and debris, but still standing,” Barnett said. “My father was there and we began to salvage the house.”

He said the transition to Vanderbilt was difficult logistically but the people of Nashville, specifically the Otolaryngology department staff and residents, were “extremely kind and gracious every step of the way.”

“I am truly grateful to the people of VUMC for so many things. This is a special place,” he said.