"The Work is So Rewarding"
Dr. Regina Benjamin
Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic
Bayou La Batre, Ala.
As told to Angus Loten
Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic was hit by a tidal surge during Hurricane Katrina. On New Year's Eve, the night before the rebuilt clinic was slated to open, it caught fire and burned to the ground. But none of that ever kept Dr. Regina Benjamin from seeing her patients -- whether they could pay or not.
Our first experience with a storm was Hurricane Georges in 1998, which washed away the clinic. So we were a little bit savvy after that. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I immediately got a team together and started gutting the building to save the structure and salvage what we could. The next day, I started seeing patients at a nearby shelter. Out of 2,500 people in the city, 2,000 didn't have any homes. We made a makeshift clinic at the shelter, and from that point on, we started seeing people seven days a week at the shelter. We saw people there until we were able to get a trailer about six weeks later. We've been seeing people in the trailer since that time. We're still in the trailer today.
Initially, we had volunteers help rebuild the clinic back in December and we were hoping to open it the day after the New Year's holiday. Then, on New Year's Eve, it burned down. That was tough. All these people put in all their energy and effort, and it all went up in smoke. We had moved all our charts, our records, all the furniture into this new place, and it all burned. Thankfully, the trailer was behind the building, and while the siding melted, the trailer didn't burn.
Today, the trailer we're in is exactly where we need to break ground to build the permanent building. So we've got to get out of the trailer. To do that, we purchased a small red brick building next door, and we're now renovating it to keep the clinic going while we build the permanent structure. I'll be much more comfortable in that building.
From a business standpoint, we saw patients for free until about March, and then we started billing those that had insurance. Financially, we've been able to survive because people have been very generous with donations. Most of our patients are uninsured. They work in the shrimping business and they can't afford insurance, or they can't buy it if they could afford it. So we've always been kind of struggling. But the work is so rewarding that it's OK.
One thing I'd do differently is build the clinic on higher ground -- and structurally more sound. And number two is switching over to electronic health records so that everything is backed up in a remote site. We've signed up with a company that automatically backs up our record every night and is located at a remote site in a different region of the country.