Healing wounds and hearts

Blount resident reaches to bayou to offer medical blessings

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By Suzy Smith
For Blount Today

Residents in Blount County recall the horror they witnessed in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as they watched the floodwaters rise. People were glued to television sets as they saw New Orleans residents wade through waist-high polluted water. They witnessed the desperation on the faces of those who crowded the overpass near the Superdome in the sweltering heat and humidity. They watched in awe as rescue workers in helicopters plucked stranded people from their rooftops.

Many Blount County residents got to know New Orleans’ displaced people as they came to Tennessee for refuge. Thomas Koehl, a Blount County resident, saw the needs in New Orleans when he traveled there as part of a mission trip. From that trip, he found a new job. He is now the medical director of a health clinic in New Orleans run by Operation Blessing.

Operation Blessing International is a ministry that provides disaster relief assistance throughout the world. Founded in 1978 by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, the organization has helped more than 155 million people in 96 countries and all 50 states. It has distributed more than $500 million in goods to families facing financial hardships.

Koehl splits his time between New Orleans and Blount County and works at the clinic every other week. When he’s not in Louisiana, he’s using his cell phone and the Internet to stay in touch with the clinic.

"I coordinate all volunteers, recruit and interview volunteers and make decisions about some volunteers because some aren’t appropriate for our setting," he said. "I’m in charge of purchasing pharmaceuticals and supplies and working with my paid staff."

Another big part of his job is ensuring that staff and volunteers meet high standards, he said. "With Operation Blessing, it’s very important for us to deliver excellence in everything we do," he said.

"The healthcare system in New Orleans is in such a crisis (that) people are dying because of lack of general healthcare," said Koehl.

Koehl has been in the medical field since 1980 when he was a kinetic therapist – someone who works with spinal cord injury and multiple trauma patients. The medical complex is located in East Orleans, one of the harder hit areas on the edge of the ninth ward near St. Bernard Parish. The need for the facility is great, said Koehl.

"The death rate is up 47 percent since the storm from lack of healthcare," he said. "You hear about violent crime in some small areas of town but the real issue is hopelessness and the lack of healthcare. When you have no place to go to the doctor, you give up."

Koehl said statistics show 127,000 people are uninsured in New Orleans. "That’s greater than the entire population of Blount County. The majority of these people had insurance prior to the storm but the employers, like the homeowners, lost everything. Many employers have not returned, and people are unable to find gainful employment that will give a living wage."

Families in New Orleans who are newly poor because of the catastrophic flooding are among those who receive medical assistance at Operation Blessing’s medical clinic. The clinic receives 75 to 100 patients per day.

Mothers with their children, grandmothers and hard-working men line up at 2 a.m. to make sure they will be able to see a physician, relates Koehl. On the first day the medical clinic opened in April 2006, a school teacher endured the long lines with everyone else. She told the doctor she was dying. She had gone without her blood pressure medicine for seven months. A check at the clinic found she had a blood pressure of 264 over 140 when it should have been 120 over 80.

"The school where she taught washed away in the flood and along with it her healthcare plan. She was living in the garage of the structure she once called home. Not only did the clinic provide her with the lifesaving blood pressure medication, they provided her with a job as a receptionist. She worked at the clinic until Operation Blessing rebuilt her school. She went back to teaching and is rebuilding her life.

Sometimes Koehl is asked why New Orleans residents stay in the impoverished area. He sighs, "Where do you go when you have nothing?" His view of the people who have stayed is that it is the people who owned homes and had jobs prior to Katrina who are back in New Orleans, saying that the residents who relied upon government assistance prior to Katrina have moved to Houston, Dallas, Memphis and Atlanta.

"The people who have come back to New Orleans have the frontier spirit," Koehl said. Operation Blessing, he said, has become a lifeline by providing free healthcare and prescription medication. The clinic started in a trailer and is now a fully functional medical facility. It has eight medical exam rooms, four dental exam areas and a full pharmacy.

Since opening on April 3, 2006, the Operation Blessing clinic has served 22,209, delivered 61,359 prescriptions and served 1,127 children. Medical and dental professionals have donated their time in the effort, including 160 doctors, 161 nurses, 110 practitioners, 91 dentists and 85 dental assistants. "A majority have come from here," Koehl said. "Tennessee has really responded. They’re been working and have made a difference and saved lives. Our community here has made a big impact."

Operation Blessing also has helped in non-medical areas. They’ve delivered 12 million pounds of food, served more than one million meals and have continued to deliver drinking water.

"We have given right at $5 million in grants to churches working in the area. We don’t rebuild churches. The money is given to them to help residents of New Orleans if they have a housing ministry or are feeding children, helping supply babies with diapers or formula," he said. "We try to see what the greatest need is and how we can meet that need."

What remains of the healthcare system in New Orleans is strained beyond its capabilities. Koehl shared several stories of those who seek treatment at the clinic because ambulance service is unavailable. It is not unheard of to wait in an ambulance for five hours in a hospital parking lot and then wait another 10 hours before being seen at one of the few open hospitals, Koehl said.

One story Koehl told was of a man who fell off a ladder when he was repairing a roof. He was transported in the rain in the back of a pickup truck to the parking lot of Operation Blessing’s medical clinic. He had two broken legs, broken ribs and various other internal injuries. The volunteer clinic staff stabilized him while trying to contact emergency services. It took 30 minutes for 911 to answer the phone.

Because of the efficiency of Operation Blessing’s medical clinic in New Orleans, Koehl was asked to testify before the U.S. congress. The clinic is viewed as a model for disaster response, he said.

MinistryWatch.com, an organization that profiles and rates ministries based upon the efficiency of donations, ranked Operation Blessing eleventh because of their efficient means of distributing donations. Koehl said 99.4 percent of all dollars donated go directly to serving those in need.

"I tell volunteers, if you ever wanted to work in a third world country, try New Orleans today," he said. "Many patients don’t have water or electricity."

Koehl said that some patients are still sleeping in cars. Because residents are still without basic necessities, Operation Blessing operates four food kitchens in the hardest hit areas of New Orleans. Military police are still patrolling the area because the police force lost everything along with the residents.

"The hardworking, dedicated residents who have come back are worthy of our efforts and the efforts of all volunteers," Koehl said. He encourages those in the medical or dental profession who have a minimum of a week to donate to contact him at thomas.koehl@gmail.com. Operation Blessing provides housing and meals; the volunteers only need to
transportation to New Orleans.

Koehl said that his volunteers get hugged many times a day from the thankful patients they help. "Expect 12-hour days and
expect needy, grateful patients."

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