Providers withstand Katrina's wrath with 'Herculean' tasks

Monday, October 31, 2005

Editor's note: On a six-day driving trip through Mississippi, a team from The VGM Group documented how its members withstood Katrina's wrath and took care of their patients.
MISSISSIPPI - Six days in an SUV, visiting large cities and rural communities, reinforced what Team VGM has known for years: Nobody delivers home care to patients like independent providers.
From Memphis, Tenn., to the war zones of Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis, Miss., we found HME providers who slept in their stores, carried oxygen tanks over downed trees into patients' homes, made payroll by driving suitcases of cash into areas that had no electric power - and hence no banks or ATMs - took care of everyone who asked, including patients who weren't theirs, organized private relief efforts to deliver help where it was really needed and in general, performed Herculean tasks in brutal heat and chaotic conditions, all to ensure that people who needed care got it.
Bill Gutknecht, CRT, and Tony Tice of Mobilcare Medical Equipment (Memphis, Tenn. and Southaven, Miss.), provided equipment, including a hospital bed, reclining chair, vent supplies and feeding pump, to a 26-year-old muscular dystrophy patient whose family fled the rising waters of Lake Ponchartrain. They're not concerned about reimbursement. "We're blessed to have him as a patient. We do it because it's the right thing to do. My son was on a vent and a trach, so I'm giving (him) the best care that's available," said Tice. He expressed appreciation to the HME manufacturers who stepped up to help with donated equipment and supplies for the young man.
Robert Williams of Direct Medical Supplies, Memphis, was busy supplying diabetic shoes to evacuees who lost their footwear as they fled North.
Truman Stokes and his son, Robert, of A&A Home Health Equipment, Greenville, Miss., put out an all-call to VGM Members to send medical equipment and relief supplies in general to a centralized warehouse in their home town. On the day we visited, 12 semi-tractor loads of much-needed items had traveled to Southern Mississippi and the Gulf Coast, where the worst of the hurricane hit.
"We loaded the trucks with what people have asked for, so it wasn't a conglomerate of stuff that was sent down there," he explained. "It's all we can do to send it and let God take it and use it the best way He knows how."
In historic Vicksburg, Miss., Dave Hosemann of Hometown Medical, drove 2 hours on rural roads, through downed trees, to deliver oxygen to a hospice patient. He made it back to his store by driving through ditches.
His wife, Connie, and their son, John David, switched the telephones to their home and took orders on legal pads for three days, "daylight and dark," Dave said. He sat on a folding chair in the store's parking lot to attend to walk-in customers; no power meant no air conditioning in the searing heat. Orders were run back and forth by "Pony Express," he noted.
Dave, a past president of the Mississippi Association of Medical Equipment Suppliers, believes "You can't get in this business unless you're very, very special. It is a ministry in my opinion, and I don't mean that in a goody-two shoes fashion. I couldn't have named my business 'Hometown' if I didn't believe that we would cater to the needs of our community."
Barry Morgan of Blue Dot Medical, Jackson, Miss., looked Katrina directly in the face. He was delivering equipment to a shelter, when he met a 74-year-old Gulf Coast evacuee, still in the clothes he was wearing when he fled north. "The little cardboard box sitting by him was all he had left in the world. His home was gone, he had no car, no insurance and his shrimp boat was gone. He had no kinfolk and said 'This is home until I have to leave.'
"When you see something like that, you come back over here and give until it hurts and still feel bad that you can't do more," he continued. "Medicare says you can't give away stuff, but I'll deal with them if they decide to make an issue of it. This is my town, my state and we have to take care of each other."
Jones County Medical Supplies Inc., Laurel, Miss., took care of their own patients, everyone else's and hurricane evacuees.
"We didn't turn anyone down, whether we were reimbursed or not," says owner Clay Johnson. Finding gas for 20 delivery vehicles was no easy task; employees drove 55-gallon drums of fuel to the Hattiesburg store to fill that store's 12 vehicles.
Employees carried cylinders over trees to make deliveries, other staffers cleared each other's driveways and tarped roofs. Clay paid his the staff who needed electricity to do their jobs (there was no power in the office) to work at area shelters.
"We were able to rise to the challenge, and our employees did an excellent job and saw to it that no one went without medical supplies ... we were here to take care of not just our patients, but everybody's."
Kwik Kare Medical is located in the coastal town of Ocean Springs, where homes were swept off their foundations by storm surges and wind. Primarily a rehab company, they stock up on oxygen during hurricane season. Owners Jay Rubenstein and Keith Wade, ATS, figure they lost $250,000 of equipment that was flooded and still are unclear about items that were in patients' homes, many of which were wiped off the map.
They appreciative of the HME manufacturers who came through with equipment, in spite of "the financial deficit we're running up," Jay notes, smiling.
"We've been here our whole lives; the only time we left was to go to college. We'll rebuild bigger and better than ever," declares Keith.


Carolyn Cole is the vice president-corporate communications for The VGM Group and the editor of the company's award-winning news magazine, The Vanguard.