August 27th, 2010
06:53 PM ET

Charity's last hours: Brutal, beautiful

Five years after Hurricane Katrina battered Charity Hospital, pain and fear, hope and triumph, still echo through its walls.

The building is like a tomb, a thin film of dust covers relics from the last day the hospital was operational in 2005: patient logs, syringes, wheelchairs, gurneys, and Bibles with their pages curled and yellowing.

The hospital is pitch black on most floors, except where occasional slats of yellow light creep through unshuttered windows. It is eery, and quiet - nothing like when the hospital was open and bustling.
"I can close my eyes and I can picture what it looked like when this place was busy," said Dr. Roderick Bennett (a third-year ER resident when Katrina hit New Orleans, five years ago this weekend) while standing in the old building this week. "It was bustling and there was always chaos and commotion but you just loved it."

Bennett and two other doctors who braved Katrina at Charity, and saved dozens, perhaps hundreds, of  lives, recently revisited the hospital with CNN. Their memories were bittersweet, especially when they recalled the long wait and the broken promises about rescue for themselves and their ailing patients.

"I think a lot of us were uncertain as to what was going to happen, what would be the next chapter and there was a lot of angst over that," said Dr. Ben Deboisblanc, an intensive care specialist who led a coordinated effort to airlift patients out of Charity after the hurricane hit. "But nonetheless, to watch all these young men and women do the work that they did under duress was a beautiful thing. I can't overstate how exciting it was to be able to take care of people in their greatest hour of need, which is I think the greatest privilege in life."

When it was still open, Charity Hospital had 2,680 beds and served many of the city's poor and uninsured patients.

"Charity Hospital was an icon. It is still an iconic symbol in many people's minds," said Dr. Ruth Berggren, formerly an infectious disease physician at Charity. "I mean, people talk about being born in Charity Hospital and their mama's mama's mama being born in Charity Hospital."

The likelihood of anyone else being born at Charity is slim, since the hospital's chances of re-opening, at the moment - look slim. There are plans to open what is being described as a state-of-the-art $1.2 billion facility a short distance away from the old Charity building. Officials say that the facility will be a bioscience hub and a destination for both medical students and doctors.

According to a website dedicated to it, the new facility will have 424 patient beds, five trauma rooms, 76 emergency department stations, 23 operating rooms and "...will feature best practices of evidence-based healthcare design."

Still, at least some former Charity doctors fear that the new center will not be the haven for the poor that Charity once was, and will take too many years (the new medical center is expected to open in 2014) to provide medical care that is desperately needed post-Katrina.

Bennett, and a coalition of community groups, are among those pressing to re-open Charity.

"My heart still hurts for Charity Hospital," said Bennett. "Watching how long it's taken us to recover and how it's just devastated the lives of a city with so much heart, that's what hurts. Health care here has been compromised for the indigent people who need it and I think this building could have been at the heart of that solution."

"It's here because of a desire to make health care available to people who don't have access," said Berggren, who is now director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "To just shut Charity down without trying to reopen it, that's very sad. That's tragic."

Meanwhile the looming, dusty Charity building still stands – devoid of patients, devoid of life – while the past still echoes through it.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.