Center for Microsurgical Breast Reconstruction

Hurricane Katrina: After the Storm

When Hurricane Katrina blew onto the Gulf Coast, Linda Knowles had a month-old breast cancer diagnosis and an appointment to have lifesaving surgery at a New Orleans hospital. She watched coverage of the storm from her Ohio home, praying for the victims and hoping her own plans to get well would remain intact.

But the hospital where she'd planned to have her mastectomy and reconstruction surgery was barely operational, and her frantic phone calls went unanswered.

"I felt devastated for the people there, but I was getting nervous to the point of getting sick to my stomach, thinking, What do I do now?" said the 52-year-old Oxford, Ohio, resident.

So she went to the Internet and ferreted out a Plan B, which led to surgery in Charleston this week with Dr. Robert J. Allen, a New Orleans plastic surgeon who has relocated his practice here, to East Cooper Plastic Surgery, since the storm.

At Dr. Robert Allen's former hospital, Memorial Medical Center, nurse Mary Jo D'amico fanned a patient in the parking garage while they waited to leave New Orleans September 1.

Allen specializes in a microsurgical technique in which tissue is taken from the patient's stomach or buttocks, reconnected to tiny blood vessels in the chest and used to construct a life-like new breast without artificial implants. With just a handful of surgeons across the nation performing the operation, his patients come from all over.

Now that he has joined forces with Dr. Richard Kline and Dr. James Craigie, both of whom Allen trained in Louisiana, at least 25 patients have changed their plans and will head to East Cooper Regional Medical Center for their operations in the coming weeks and months.

Since Allen didn't have access to his patient records -- his hospital, Memorial Medical Center, had become a desperate place where patients died as electricity and supplies ran out and help failed to arrive -- he relied on the Internet to get word out to his patients about his new plans.

Minutes after the message referring people to numbers at East Cooper Plastic Surgery and Allen's new South Carolina cell phone was posted on his practice's Web site, women started calling in to reschedule their surgeries.

News spreads fast among the close sisterhood of breast cancer patients, so it wasn't long before calls also came in from women like Knowles who'd been patients of other displaced New Orleans doctors. For some of the women, time is crucial -- after being diagnosed with breast cancer, women who need mastectomies should have them within six weeks, or else risk of tumor growth increases.

For Knowles, the clock was ticking, having learned about her cancer on Aug. 2 and being burdened by a frightening family history of the disease.

"Women were very anxious," Allen said. "They have cancer and they had major surgery scheduled, and all of a sudden New Orleans had been knocked out, and they couldn't find their doctors."

On Wednesday morning, just as Allen's South Carolina malpractice insurance policy got shored up, Knowles became the first patient to receive surgery from the new team at East Cooper. She's expected to leave the hospital Monday, and will remain in Charleston until the 18th, after her follow-up procedure.

To be sure, Allen is much luckier than most of the hurricane evacuees who rode out the storm and its aftermath inside their flooded homes and at the filthy, jam-packed Superdome. He left New Orleans the day before the storm hit, with his wife, 16-year-old daughter and their dog, and headed to the small vacation home he owns in Awendaw.

His daughter has started school in Charleston and the family is preparing to move into a rental house downtown. Their New Orleans home may even have been spared the worst of the storm, since it sits in the higher part of the city that didn't flood. Nonetheless, Allen plans to stay in Charleston well into the year, and possibly even permanently.

Even his New Orleans colleagues who perform similar surgeries didn't fare as well, without a ready-made practice to join up with elsewhere, or licensing tangles that keep them from operating on patients in other states.

Memorial Medical Center is owned by the same company as East Cooper, but it's unclear when -- or if -- that hospital will reopen. In the meantime, Allen made plans to divert delivery of a high-tech new microscope used in surgeries from Memorial to East Cooper, which will allow the doctors to expand their services to more women.

Although they admit it feels a bit strange that the new partnership was born of such great tragedy, Craigie and Kline said they're excited to have Allen on board. And from a city where life as everyone knew it has ground to a painful halt, a small group of women will still continue their journey toward healing.

"The patients are very relieved to find they can move on with their plans," Allen said. "These women do a lot of research, and when they make up their mind up only to be told they can't do what they've planned, it's very hard."

Holly Auer covers health and medicine. She can be reached at (843) 937-5560.

The Post and Courier Staff

Sunday, September 11 2005

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