The Hero Within

Sometimes it takes the most egregiously painful events in our lives to trigger us to rise to the occasion to get things done.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in US history, tested Americans’ willpower to deal with a terrible situation and become heroes.

Alice Craft Kerney is one of those heroes.

After being evacuated with her family to New Mexico in the immediate aftermath of the storm, Kerney came back to New Orleans to start life all over.

In the process of rebuilding the city, it became very apparent that many resources that existed before the storm no longer existed, most notably healthcare. Before the storm, Charity Hospital was the only healthcare space in the city that provided medical and mental health services for low-income residents. Louisiana State University, which operated the hospital, did not reopen it after the levees failed and the hospital’s basement flooded. Due to the closure, Kerney, who worked for Charity for 20 years, was one of many to lose their jobs.

With the hospital gone, the health needs of Kerney’s neighbors in the Lower 9th Ward were going unaddressed, especially the mental health needs of Katrina survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

A friend came up with the novel idea of Kerney starting up a clinic in the community to address these needs. At first she was hesitant to do it because she had no administrative experience, but after realizing that no one else was going to deal with the growing health crisis in the community, she changed her mind.

So, her friend, who owned a mansion in the neighborhood, allowed Kerney to turn it into a community health center. After major refurbishing and construction, the Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic opened its doors to the community in February 2007.

“We do our part to provide quality, culturally sensitive healthcare to our patients,” Kerney said at a recent panel discussion in Boston. “Everyone who comes through the clinic treats each other with respect.”

While the clinic doesn’t have all the modern tools and conveniences that would be found in a typical American hospital, it does provide a space for those who otherwise wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. Many of the clinic's small staff are people entired paid with private funds and there is a larger number of volunteers from around the country. Kerney said that unlike big hospitals that only treat patients when they get sick, her clinic attempts to deal with patients’ overall wellness even when they have no ailment. Since the clinic opened Kerney says that mental and dental healthcare are the most chronic problems.

Many patients also come into the clinic that are disgruntled about the rebuilding process, such as price gouging at nearby retailers and contractors stealing money – all issues the mainstream media hasn’t discussed too much since the storm occurred.
While the media and the federal and local governments have all but forgotten about the victims of Katrina, Kerney wants others to keep telling the story of her community.

“You can tell people that there is still a lot of work to do,” she continued. “It is a tale of two cities in New Orleans – one for the haves and the other for the have-nots. So we ask that you keep the discussion going."

Read more about the clinic's work here.

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