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Free health clinic opening to help Lower 9 come back - Volunteers, donors make service possible

Times Picayune, 3/2/07

By Gwen Filosa
Times Picayune
March 2, 2007

Eighteen months after the levee failures and Hurricane Katrina shattered the Lower 9th Ward, residents this week welcomed the opening of a free health clinic on St. Claude Avenue.

The Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic is a bright spot, with baby blue walls, gleaming floors and stuffed animals dotting the waiting room. And it's fully stocked with nurses, a medical director, five examination rooms and the typical supplies, all paid for by private donors and volunteer groups.

But for those rebuilding this struggling corner of New Orleans, devastated by the flooding of Aug. 29, 2005, the health clinic at 5228 St. Claude Ave. is a beacon drawing people home.

"We want to be known as one of the anchors for the Lower 9 community," said Alice Craft-Kerney, a registered nurse who helped create the clinic and serves as its executive director. "You have to create services here to be a true neighborhood, and one of them is health care. We know residents returning don't have a lot of money. We will treat anyone. We're the only health care facility located in the Lower 9th Ward and there is a dire need."

The New Orleans region lost some 11 hospitals to Katrina and remains mired in a health care crisis, which the Lower 9 clinic's directors watch from the frontlines. Chronic ailments such as high blood pressure and diabetes can be fatal if left undetected, yet the long lines at the few health care centers reopened since Katrina often deter people from getting basic screenings.

"The first symptom can be a stroke or a heart attack," said Jaya Aysola, a pediatrician and director of the New Orleans Children's Health Project at Tulane University, who is chairwoman of the clinic's board of directors. "If you come in that late in the game, it's too late and they've sought care too late. Primary prevention is key. This is the right model. The clinic is in the community. They can seek medical care in their own community."

The clinic was ready to open in mid-August, but city building inspectors arrived at the grand opening ceremony with a host of issues related to changing the building's use from a family home to a medical facility. A lawyer from the McGlinchey Stafford firm learned of the red tape debate and offered to guide the clinic's founders through the paperwork.

"Everyone had the best intentions," said the lawyer, Lester Johnson, of the clinic's creators. "They just hadn't done it before."

Craft-Kerney, who lost her eastern New Orleans home to the flood, is living in a FEMA trailer in the Lower 9 so she can be close to the clinic, itself a testament to the neighborhood's rebirth. The corner lot and house are owned by Patricia Berryhill, a registered nurse who raised her four children there. But after the floodwaters receded, Berryhill decided to rebuild her home as a health clinic.

Joining the two women were a bevy of nonprofit agencies and volunteers, namely the Common Ground Lower 9th Ward Project and Leaders Creating Change Through Contribution, a Portland, Ore., group that kicked in a $30,000 donation as start-up cash for the clinic.

Since then, partners teaming up with the clinic include St. Margaret's Daughters and the California Nurses Association.

The Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic is ready to treat 150 patients each week, the clinic's directors said, an effort that could take some of the burden off hospitals.

"They're hurting right now, seeing so many emergency visits for a cold," said Johnson, who specializes in health law. "Now that we're open, we're depleting every dollar we have. That's just the way every free clinic is."

The clinic's telephone number is 309-0918.

CNA/NNOC's RN Response Network (RNRN) has sponsored this clinic and is collecting donations to keep the doors open:

* Designate your gift today to our "Katrina Aftermath Project"

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