Free medical care attracts long lines in predawn hours

Monday, January 29, 2007

NEW ORLEANS -- Bundled up against the chill wind, people began lining up at 2 a.m. Sunday to see the doctors and dentists offering free care to poor and uninsured people in the New Orleans area. By the time the first 50 had been called into the registration tent, there were hundreds more behind them.

Claudette Stone, 52, of Chalmette, was first in line for most of the morning.

She had tried several times to see doctors brought by the same groups about a year ago, but couldn't get to the tents before 8 a.m. That was much too late.

For that matter, she said, 4 a.m. was too late at the daily clinic operated in eastern New Orleans by Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing International, one of the partners in the weeklong health fair that opened Sunday. She's tried that. "Some days, they'll see 15 people, some days 10. There would already be that many people lined up," she said.

That's why she pulled up at 2 a.m. at the park where Operation Blessing operates the clinic out of three sets of doublewides, and has added 14 tents this week for 30 doctors, 60 dentists and hundreds of nurses and nursing students, many of them brought by a volunteer group called Remote Area Medicine. The parking lot quickly filled with cars, although some patients came by foot.

The director of the project, Jody Herrington, said volunteers expected to see 600 patients by the end of the day. Officials estimated that as many as 10,000 would be served during the week.

For Stone, whose diabetes, high blood pressure and other problems had left her unable to work as a nurse before Hurricane Katrina, being first in line was well worth it.

Mary Washington, two cars back, said she'd arrived at 3:15 a.m. "I've done this many times to come here to see the doctor" at the regular clinic, she said. She said she had been a slot attendant and supervisor at the Bally's casino in New Orleans before the storm. It never reopened afterward, then moved to St. Mary Parish. At 57, her medical problems make it hard to find another job, Washington said.

She said she and her mother had been living in a travel trailer in Jefferson Parish, but that parish's end-of-trailer deadline sent them back to her mother's partly restored house in eastern New Orleans, even though some windows are still broken, the floors are unfinished and there are no inside doors.

There were about 15 cars behind Stone's by 4 a.m., when occupants of a half-dozen vehicles parked at another locked gate realized they were in the wrong place. The first of those drivers, Bernadette Vall, 56, of Metairie, said she'd arrived about 3:20 a.m.

She and her passenger, Estelle Wade, 60, of Metairie, both had suffered strokes -- Vall last year, and Wade in 2003. Wade was hoping to get insulin pens, as she had a year ago, and perhaps an insulin monitor. She needed dental work, too.

Although the cars behind hers parked at the end of the longer line, Vall pulled up at the head, drawing acrimonious shouts from people parked a few cars back. She wound up getting in first, too, when National Guardsmen opened a gate a few feet away: her car was smaller than Stone's SUV, and a bit closer to the open gate.

Each person who wanted a medical, dental or eye appointment got a sheet of paper with a large number printed on it. "This is your ticket to see the doctor," a guardsman repeated, over and over. "Don't leave it in your car. Keep it with you."

Penny Anderson, her daughter, and three small grandchildren were there to see a dentist. "My daughter went on line to try to get health insurance for me and my husband," Anderson said. "It was $799 a month! That's a house note!"

They had numbers 24-28.

Stan Brock, founder of Remote Area Medical, said he was most concerned about making sure that the first 257 people -- those who had come through the gate by 6 a.m. -- were taken care of. But he said they've had enough practice to keep things smooth.

"This is the 483rd one of these we have done," he said in between calling in groups of patients-to-be by their assigned numbers. "We've helped over 300,000 poor folks."

"You can't put a price on this," Zachary Jackson, No. 64, told Ray Stringer, just behind him.

"There's no way," Stringer agreed.

Both had come to New Orleans for demolition and rebuilding jobs, Jackson, 54, from Detroit and Stringer, 60, from Los Angeles. Neither had insurance through his employer.

"I came here for recovery work after seeing Spike Lee's documentary" about the storm, `When the Levees Broke", said Stringer, 60, a journeyman mason. He was looking for medicine and a general physical.

"I was kind of broke, to tell the truth," Jackson said. "But you get a different perspective when you come here and see it first hand. It's a different program down here."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: