On Being Best

The current state of health care in New Orleans

I knew three people who suffered from different complex forms of cancer. Each had to leave town for treatment. One went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Another traveled to MD Anderson in Houston. And the other practically had to relocate to be near the University of Pennsylvania’s Hospital in Philadelphia. Each had to bear the hardship of being away from home in addition to their malady. None of them survived.

Those stories tore me up. If someone from New Orleans needs specialized treatment, I thought, they shouldn’t have to book a flight; they should be able to take a taxi.

For most of its history New Orleans has been a fairly good town for medical care. Dr. Rudolph Matas developed the intravenous drip and was the first to surgically repair aneurisms. Alton Ochsner added to the research linking smoking and cancer. Pioneering heart surgery has been a specialty at the hospital he founded. Both Tulane University and Ochsner did breakthrough research in tropical medicine. In its heyday Charity Hospital was recognized as one of the best emergency service hospitals in the country. During the Civil War, Dr. G.H. Tichenor pioneered the use of antiseptics in surgery. In New Orleans he began bottling the patent medicine that carries his name. On matters of health care though, pretty good isn’t good enough. Why not be the best?

That is why I’ve been in favor of the LSU/VA complex. There is room to quibble about street rights-of-way and parking access, and the financing remains a tangled issue. But New Orleans, historically a destination city where people have come for a better life, could and should be where people come to get healed. Scale the hospital back?

Hell no. Make it the best and the biggest.

Sometimes ambition is more important than money. The cost of the Superdome was way over what was projected, yet it was paid for fairly quickly and its refinanced bonds have since financed other projects, including the Arena.

Katrina’s aftermath set health care back, but there’s encouragement – not only from the hospital complex but also from the upcoming bioresearch district and the almost compete LSU cancer research facility. Within the next decade a once-blighted part of downtown New Orleans will be a bustling medical area. There are also good things happening that are less visible. I was heartened by the comments of one of our featured doctors, Patricia Estrada, who talked about her good fortune as a family medicine practitioner to be able to send patients to qualified doctors locally: “I feel very lucky to be in this town because I have a small-town, traditional family practice but the specialists here are superb.”

As is customary for our August issue we honor many of the city’s best doctors. For the future, may the list grow longer and the quality be beyond compare.

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