By Judith Graham

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – “Two women who need C sections. Can’t scrub. No water. … Babies don’t have milk.”

This message went out to friends Thursday morning from Kelli Nelson, a labor and delivery nurse at Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans.

She hasn’t been heard from since, said her mother, Cathy.

Nearby, at University Hospital, Dr. Oscar Ballester, a cancer specialist, told his son-in-law, Justin Dees, by cell phone that “patients are dying … it’s perilous … any type of life-assisting device is non-functioning,” Dees said.

Although rescue efforts continued at a frantic pace throughout New Orleans Thursday, several hospitals in the city had trouble getting assistance as conditions deteriorated. Security also became a pressing issue, as trucks ferrying in supplies and helicopters trying to rescue patients came under gunfire.

In Gretna, La., about six miles outside New Orleans, Tenet Healthcare Corp. asked Louisiana State Police to help evacuate Meadowcrest Hospital after armed bandits attempted to hijack a truck carrying food, water and drugs in the predawn hours Thursday.

Several roving bands armed with weapons later surrounded the hospital and threatened people inside, said Tenet spokesman Steven Campanini.

But chaos at hospitals was only part of the medical fallout from Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of people – both those still waiting to be rescued in New Orleans and those who have fled as refugees – found themselves without medications for heart disease, diabetes, depression and other conditions and are facing the prospect of becoming seriously ill.

Calling the situation for refugees with chronic medical conditions dire, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Thursday that the government was rushing to open 40 emergency medical shelters across the Gulf Coast.

“It’s still not clear exactly what medical care is most needed,” Leavitt said in a television interview.

Of particular concern are thousands of people with kidney disease who need regular dialysis treatments to stay alive. “We’re sending the people who come to us as far away as Alexandria because all the local centers are full,” said Dr. Bill Cassidy, who was volunteering at a special needs center for storm refugees at Louisiana State University’s athletic field house in Baton Rouge, La. Alexandria is 140 miles away.

Another concern is finding long-term shelters for nursing home patients evacuated from New Orleans and other cities hit by the storm. How many of these patients got out isn’t clear, but hundreds have landed in hospitals in Baton Rouge and elsewhere, said Dr. Louis Minsky, a family physician coordinating emergency medical response in Baton Rouge.

Some of the most disturbing developments continued to take place at New Orleans hospitals, where as many as 9,000 people remained stranded despite ongoing rescue efforts.

Don Smithburg, chief executive of Louisiana State University Hospitals, which include University and nearby Charity Hospital, spoke by cell phone with the Chicago Tribune from the state’s emergency command center, where he’s in regular contact with officials leading the rescue effort.

“You know what this feels like: the Apollo 13 mission,” the hospital executive said. “We’re here at command doing everything we can yet there seems to be uncontrollable obstacles in the way of getting people out of those hospitals.”

The main obstacle, he said, is “figuring out how to deploy and coordinate all the available assets.”

Late Thursday afternoon, only 40 patients at Charity Hospital had been able to leave by helicopter and no one had gotten out of University Hospital. All together, more than 2,200 people are believed to be at the two facilities.

Inside University Hospital, Jessica Lee, a third-year medical resident, was able to e-mail her longtime boyfriend, Jason Newton, late Wednesday afternoon, Newton said. “Gunshots and riots. Not safe,” she wrote.

Reached in Houston, Jay Lee, the young woman’s father, said the family had joked that wherever Jessica was, disaster followed. As a college student, Jessica had been in Oklahoma when terrorism hit that state; as a medical intern, she was working at a Brooklyn hospital in 2001 when the World Trade Center fell a few miles away.

Now, “all we want is for her to come out safe from this storm. And no one’s joking any more,” her father said.

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