A native of Brisyol, Virginia, and former chief of medicine and head of graduate medical education at New Orleans’ famed Ochsner Clinic, Dr. Donald Erwin, President and CEO of St. Thomas Community Health Center, believes his real education began at St. Thomas. “I learned of the clinic in 1987 when two Catholic Sisters of Charity visited my church. They told my congregation that they had founded a clinic in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.” Erwin volunteered to help on the spot, to not only see patients at the clinic, but train the medical residents as well.
Before Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana had one of the nation’s highest mortality rates due to lack of screening sites and breast cancer prevention education, causing late- stage diagnosis. After the hurricane hit, only about half of the physicians returned to the city leaving both insured and uninsured patients unable to find physicians. Dr. Erwin saw this devastation and decided to take action to ensure that the population received life-saving breast cancer screenings.
“Katrina took from New Orleans one of the few places in the region where uninsured women could be screened for breast cancer,” explains Dr. Erwin. “Like many cities with underserved communities, New Orleans faces the challenge of increased mortality due to late- stage diagnosis.”
New Orleans’s Charity Hospital system, which served the city’s uninsured and underserved population, was devastated by Katrina. The storm permanently closed the historic hospital and shut down the University Hospital for 18 months, forcing half the health care providers to relocate outside the city. Dr. Erwin and his wife Dr. Mary Abell saw this and armed with the keys to the clinic, stepped into the breach.
Six weeks after the storm, Drs. Erwin and Abell reopened St. Thomas and reinstated Katrina-ravaged New Orleans with reliable primary care, breast and cervical cancer screening services. An $85,000 Community Grant from the Prevent Cancer Foundation allowed Dr. Erwin to offer not only screening services, but also surgical oncology consultations (including biopsies) and post- operative care for those patients needing surgery.
“I can’t begin to describe just how much the Prevent Cancer Foundation grant helped us,” explains Dr. Erwin. “We knew this was a different kind of grant than the Foundation was used to, but it helped make St. Thomas the only place in New Orleans where uninsured women could get a mammogram. And it is still that.”
From October, 2005 until March, 2008, St. Thomas CHC was the only site in the New Orleans region where uninsured women could obtain mammography and further diagnostic studies for the detection of breast cancer.