|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.
|A day before Hurricane Katrina, plastic surgeon Dr. Bob
Allen (left) New Orleans, relocating his practice to join
Mount Pleasant's Dr. Richard Kline and Dr. James Craigie.
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
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
"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.
||At Dr. Robert Allen's
former hospital, Memorial Medical Center (left), nurse Mary
Jo D'amico fanned a patient in the parking garage while they
waited to leave New Orleans September 1.
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 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
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)
The Post and Courier Staff
Sunday, September 11 2005
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