Big Easy Health In Critical Condition

Patients Lie In Hallways
Hospitals in New Orleans face overcrowding.
CBS

One year ago, Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast and thousands of New Orleans residents were evacuating.

For those who returned and those who never left, living conditions are still rough, especially if they need medical care, as CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan reports.

It's midnight on the streets of New Orleans and paramedic Jed Tate is starting another long frustrating shift.

"All the hospitals are overwhelmed," Tate says. "They just can't accept patients, they're booked solid."

From dusk to dawn, it's like playing a 24-hour shell game.

Only two out of five hospital beds are available since Hurricane Katrina hit. Space for mental health patients is the toughest to find. Even gunshot victims are stacked up in hallways.

It's estimated that only half of the city's 2,300 doctors have returned since the storm, and there are even fewer nurses.

"It's full out, emergency medicine, sick people and lots of 'em, all day long." Dr. Tracy Legros, an emergency services specialist says.

A year ago, Dr. Legros was evacuating patients from Charity Hospital, even while her house was slowly going under water.

At that time, Legros said, "We're doing the best we can, that's the Charity way. We're going to make it."

But a year later, Charity hasn't made it. The hospital remains boarded up, and so are nine other hospitals in New Orleans. Those that have stayed open are hemorrhaging money.

"People have no idea of the limitations of the city at this time," Dr. Legros says.

So what does this all mean? It means something as simple as a minor traffic accident can set the dominos falling.

For example, Tate tried to bring a patient to one hospital, but it was entirely full. So he spent time calling one hospital after another trying to find space for three of his patients.

In the end, the patients came to a makeshift emergency room that looks more than a little like a loading dock. In fact, it is. With space so limited, and hospitals so damaged, the city opened an emergency room in what used to be a Lord and Taylor department store.

Dr. Legros works in that space too, dispensing tough news in what used to be the women's shoe department.

"If we can try to get you help in this city for the cancer, we will try to do that," the doctor tells a sick patient.

"We were in tents on a vacant lot, we've been on a ship, we've been in the conventions center, we'll go wherever. I mean this is emergency medicine," Dr. Legros says.

Given what the city used to look like, some say it's amazing the city has come even this far. But for Dr. Legros, the prognosis isn't good.

"I fear it's going to take at least 30-35 percent of my career, or maybe half. I may spend half my career in a devastated city. And I never anticipated that," Dr. Legros says.

Nor did she anticipate helping to cure a whole health care system, while at the same time, caring for the people that need it most.