Louisiana health care workers struggle with strain of COVID-19, hurricane recovery

Power lines in Houma are swayed following Hurricane Ida.
Power lines in Houma are swayed following Hurricane Ida. Photo by JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator

Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have been treating chainsaw cuts, bug and animal bites as well as respiration issues in a makeshift tent hospital outside Terrebonne General Medical Center in Houma for days. Terrebonne General, the largest hospital in Louisiana’s Bayou region, suffered damage to its roof during Hurricane Ida and has mostly been shut down since the storm hit in late August.

Dr. Andrea Lorio, a pulmonology and critical care physician at Terrebonne General, starts the day early, keeping lists and binders full of notes on the reopening of the hospital and her cancer patients. She’s having a hard time finding medicine that will keep some of those patients breathing. 

Lorio is one of many healthcare workers who find themselves shouldering an increasingly large burden, pivoting from dealing with one crisis–the COVID-19 pandemic–to navigating the aftermath of hurricane damage

Most of the hospitals in Louisiana’s Bayou region were severely damaged during the storm that made landfall near Terrebonne General in late August. Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma, Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Cut Off and Ochsner St. Anne in Raceland all had to evacuate patients. Terrebonne General was operating out of tents for days, though they have finally been able to move some services back into the building Friday, after widespread cleanup efforts.

Health care workers have had to work throughout the storm and aftermath, struggling to give patients the attention they need. Lorio stayed in the hospital with critical care patients during the hurricane, feeling the building shake beneath her.

Before the storm, she had focused her time on COVID-19 patients, going between clinics and the hospital. Now, with over 2,000 system appointments at Terrebonne General rescheduled after the storm, Lorio said it was important to keep coordinating with vulnerable patients who need treatment. 

“I get home to cook dinner for my family and then after they’re settled, then I’m back to working on my notebook and my list of tasks for the day. So I’m not done until maybe 10:30 at night and then I wake up and do it all again,” Lorio said. “I make it a priority for me to be home for dinner time, to spend that time with my family, that one hour with my family every day. It kind of just recharges my batteries and I’m ready to get going again.” 

Terrebonne General Health System CEO Phyllis Peoples hopes to keep bringing employees back into the hospital, with a goal of having close to 800 back by the end of the month. Peoples said she’s trying to keep employees’ stress levels down by getting everything back to normal as soon as possible. 

But the Bayou region is far from normal right now. Peoples only got electricity back at her home this week, and many of communities that Terrebonne General serves still didn’t have power at all almost three weeks after Hurricane Ida made landfall. The storm was the strongest storm to hit Louisiana since the Civil War

In Lafourche Parish, a third of households and businesses still don’t have electricity, and in Terrebonne Parish, a fifth of them don’t have access to power, according to the Louisiana Public Service Commission.

While Peoples is sorting out hospital issues, she said her husband was working on their storm-damaged house, throwing out moldy furniture and dealing with flooding issues. 

“You’re very thankful for a bath, and a hot one. You’re very thankful for a lot of things. You come to work not necessarily matching and you come to work not necessarily in washed clothes. But you do what you got to do,” Peoples said. 

In the aftermath of the storm, employees were allowed to take what they wanted from the gift shop. Peoples said she was very proud of how her team pulled together to help each other, with some healthcare workers making food for everyone. 

“We’re here to support people. We had people empty the freezers wherever we had them, and it might not have been a lot of choice meals but we ate,” Peoples said. “We ate and they served us something. People who might have normally been in surgery were making sandwiches for people.” 

At Ochsner Health System, President and CEO Warner Thomas said the system launched two new apps focused on employee mental health.  The hospital system also offered financial assistance to its workers, giving out 3,250 grants totaling $1.6 million dollars. 

Ochsner — Louisiana’s largest health care provider with facilities across Southeast Louisiana — also proactively sent psychologists to their hospitals and facilities bearing the brunt of the storm and COVID-19. 

“There’s no doubt that with Covid and a hurricane on top of that, the things that people are dealing with, it’s really a remarkable time and so we’ve come up with different avenues for people to get the help they need,” Hart said. 

 The Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System implemented new employee stress relief program in May. 

Dr. Crystal Tillis, the facility’s stress management coordinator, said they recognized the need for the program because of the pandemic, and with the hurricane, she anticipates the program will run for a long time. 

“There is a significant amount of stress, just around trying to multitask with work obligations and now hurricane recovery and calling the contractors and adjusters, and for some staff, it’s been trying to find a place to live in the area,” Tillis said. 

So far, around 192 employees have filled out surveys focused on stress. Those who had higher stress levels were invited into the program. Around 20 people have completed it.

Tillis said she implements some of the tactics taught in the course, like breathing techniques, in her own life. 

“Even just reminding myself about those pleasurable activities that I enjoy, if it’s going to have an ice cream cone or looking at videos of my godchildren that brings about some joy, I really try to keep that in mind and remind my friends and family about it,” Tillis said. “Because stress is stress and we just have to remember that you have to manage it appropriately or it can be very  detrimental.”