Keesler Medical Center rebounds from Katrina

  • Published
  • By Steve Pivnick
  • 81st Medical Group Public Affairs
Keesler Medical Center, the second largest Air Force medical center, has made great strides in rebounding from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina one year ago. 

The facility is rapidly returning to its pre-Katrina status, both from the standpoint of the physical plant and services. 

Full inpatient service and associated care are on target to return in October. The facility staff began limited inpatient services Aug. 15, and are marking the milestone with a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's Aug. 29, 2005, assault on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

"I'm so proud of the efforts of our medics and the contractors who have worked tirelessly to meet our objectives," said Brig. Gen. (Dr.) James Dougherty, 81st Medical Group commander, of the progress made over the past year. "It's been heartening to see the remarkable achievements made in repairing and improving the medical center's infrastructure." 

Increasing numbers of physicians, nurses, medical technicians and support staff are arriving to allow the 81st MDG to offer the best possible care to the approximately 30,000 active duty, retired military and their family members who rely on the medical center. Included are more than 3,400 students, among them almost 2,100 nonprior service Airmen in the 81st Training Group. The 81st MDG provides a team of medical providers to support the nonprior service students in the Triangle Clinic. 

The limited inpatient operations that started Aug. 15 include medical and surgical inpatient beds, intensive care beds, operating rooms and ambulatory surgery. The scope and size of services will continue to expand throughout this fall. 

The long-term outlook has officer and enlisted training returning January through July 2007. One dental residency, advanced education in general dentistry, returned Aug. 7; the other two, general practice and endodontics residencies, resume in 2007 and 2008. 

The University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Air Force Medical Service signed a landmark agreement June 16 to maintain medical residency programs at Keesler Medical Center. Under terms of the agreement, the School of Medicine at UMC oversees all four residency programs at Keesler -- general surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology -- that were relocated after Hurricane Katrina. The Air Force supplies the faculty and residents for the program, scheduled to begin again in July 2007. 

Other officer training is scheduled to resume over the next two years. The nurse transition program, which trains nurses with less than one year of clinical experience, is scheduled to return in January. The certified registered nurse anesthetist program should be back in the summer of 2008. The orthopedic physician assistant is expected to resume then as well. 

Phase II training for enlisted technicians returns incrementally over the next 18 months with laboratory and pharmacy technician training restarting in October. Plans call for radiology technologist training for X-ray, ultrasound and nuclear medicine to resume in January. Aerospace medicine service and surgery service training are also on line to resume then. Training for cardiopulmonary technicians is expected to be restored next summer. 

Throughout the process of returning the medical center to its pre-Katrina capabilities, the 81st MDG continued to have deployment responsibilities. Nearly 120 Keesler medics have deployed in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom since Katrina. While the medical center was damaged and services limited, these medics were in specialties that couldn't be used here. 

Although many of those medics suffered personal losses due to the storm, they deployed to areas where they were desperately needed. At the same time, they were able to maintain the skills required once Keesler Medical Center re-established inpatient care. 

More medics are preparing to support Air Expeditionary Forces 3 and 4, which deploy in the September to December timeframe. Additionally, Keesler members have been tasked to support a medical rapid response force team, which provides medical personnel and equipment to meet specific operational requirements of the U.S. Northern Command commander. 

Currently, the 81st MDG provides medical care with a staff of more than 700 people, less than one-third of the more than 2,220 assigned Aug. 28, 2005. By October, the group is expected to nearly double to more than 1,200 people, and by the time the graduate medical education programs return in July 2007, to more than 1,770. 

Air Force and Air Education and Training Command officials have allocated more than $138 million to pay for repairs to the medical center and replace Katrina losses with new state-of-the-art equipment and furniture. 

The basement-level outpatient services entrance reopened May 8, after installation of a new escalator and elevator for easy access to the first floor. The main pharmacy for new prescriptions from Keesler providers re-opened June 5. Three weeks later, a temporary outpatient pharmacy for refills and civilian prescriptions opened. Also a new blood donor center opened July 13. Before that, the blood donor team collected 500 units of blood per month through mobile blood drives. 

Several pieces of high-value equipment lost to Hurricane Katrina's storm surge are being replaced, including MRI, mammography equipment, linear accelerator and a photorefractive keratectomy laser. This equipment is being located above the basement floor to prevent future water damage. An exception is the linear accelerator, which goes into a watertight area. 

Renovation of the basement, including many of the primary care clinics and dining facility, continues. The clinics should return to their former locations soon and the dining facility is expected to reopen in October. 

An in-place flood mitigation plan has been developed to protect electrical substations, switchgear, generators, fire pumps, medical gas/vacuum, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and computer servers from future disasters. This includes installation of 28 custom-made flood doors to protect these critical assets, 16 flood hatches to prevent water from entering through the basement floor and 16 sump pumps to remove water if the doors or floor are breached.