Clinic out of chaos
Montreal nurse helps bring some health care to a poor community ravaged by Katrina
Joseph Patrick Lejtenyi Montreal Mirror, September 22nd 2005
“I arrived at the Atlanta airport and was transferring to the plane that was leaving for Baton Rouge,” says Montreal nurse Scott Weinstein. “About half of us there were wearing scrubs—they were all doctors or nurses or EMPs (emergency medical personnel). Some people were assigned places to go. Those were the lucky ones. The rest of us didn’t know what we were doing. When we arrived in Baton Rouge, I thought they’d have someone welcoming us or orienting us. But there wasn’t anybody. The woman at the airport information desk could tell us where the aquarium was, or where the botanical gardens were, but nothing else. We didn’t know what was going on or what the needs were.” This was Weinstein’s first impression of the chaos in Louisiana in the wake of the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina. He, like millions of other people worldwide, was watching the unfolding tragedy on television with horror and disgust, until he heard about an SOS sent out by the Louisiana nurses’ association. Deciding he’d rather help than “rage in Montreal,” he says, he flew down less than a week after the storm to help as best he could. The veteran anti-war activist and street nurse thought his expertise in working surrounded by chaos and disaster might prove handy. He was right: he wasn’t treating people who’d been clubbed or teargassed, but he was able to bring a bit of community health care expertise to a state where the poor are routinely ignored.
Guns and incompetence
The first thing Weinstein encountered was the much-publicized official incompetence. Then it was the armed law enforcement and military personnel. He says he wasn’t given much in terms of direction, so he’d “pop around as needed,” he says. And when one armed guard would block access to an area, he’d just try his luck with another. “I didn’t need to take no for an answer from some authority who didn’t know what was going on outside their office,” he says. Eventually, he found himself in Algiers, a predominantly poor and black neighbourhood on the other side of the Mississippi from New Orleans. Community activists there, he says, were setting up an emergency medical clinic, and were asking for help. “This is a traditionally under-served neighbourhood,” says Weinstein. “We want to use the crisis of the hurricane to take advantage of the billions of dollars flowing into the Gulf Coast.” Weinstein knows how to use the money. In Montreal, he works at the Pointe-St-Charles community clinic, an independent health centre that operates outside the CLSC system. He’s bringing that experience to New Orleans, he says, to “develop something meaningful for ordinary people, and not just meaningful for street radicals. We have to transform it into a fully functional medical clinic.” While operating now strictly on an emergency basis, Weinstein hopes that eventually the Common Ground Health Clinic will fill a gaping hole in Algiers residents’ health care. He says that they are “stocked to the gills,” and have been given kudos by Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan, and support from Community Labor United, a coalition of low-income groups in New Orleans. Weinstein estimates it will take about six months for the clinic to be fully operational.
Competing with the government
Weinstein says he is still very wary of all government, and that he isn’t the only one. “The government set up a clinic of their own a few blocks away,” he says. “But the people here think they’re just trying to show us up. Most of us think it’ll be gone in a month or two. This hurricane blew the lid off any trust the people had in their government all across the U.S. It just didn’t have to happen this way. It shows a fundamental hostility towards black and poor people.” The crisis is far from over. At presstime, Hurricane Rita was bearing down on the Gulf with winds topping 150 kilometres per hour, though it remains only a Category 1 storm, not comparable to Katrina. “We’re going to treat ourselves as emergency medical personnel and ride it out,” Weinstein says. “We’re asking our patients if they’re staying or leaving, and we’ll be making house visits to those that do stay.” Most likely, Weinstein will be home early next week. “But right now I’m committed to making sure this clinic survives,” he says.