Nine years ago, New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The storm caused billions of dollars in damage, forcing thousands of people to flee the city, many of whom never came back. Those who did return, such as rheumatologist Luis Espinoza, MD, were forced to rebuild from the ground up.
The morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast beside New Orleans as a category 3 storm with sustained winds of more than 120 miles per hour. The storm tore through the city, ripping holes in the roof of the Superdome and breaking levees, leading to flooding that covered 80% of the city in water.
“It was a major catastrophe for the city of New Orleans, for the entire population. It affected every single institution in the city,” recalls Dr. Espinoza.
One of the many institutions affected was Louisiana State University’s School of Medicine, where Dr. Espinoza has worked for 23 years and was serving as chief of the rheumatology section at the time. Its hospitals and buildings were damaged by the storm and its aftermath. The faculty, staff and students were forced to leave New Orleans and set up in Baton Rouge. However, LSU couldn’t leave behind the financial damage Katrina had caused. Dr. Espinoza says the medical school lost a significant number of patients, which also meant it lost much of its financial basis. He says the school was forced to furlough many of the faculty members, including most of the rheumatology section. “I lost three full-time faculty members. These were full professors [who] were furloughed as a result of the devastation caused by Katrina. Then I was the only faculty member left,” he explains. Still, a handful of rheumatology fellows stayed in the section.
A year later, the school of medicine moved back to New Orleans, and Dr. Espinoza began rebuilding his section. For the first few years, he was able to keep it going with the help of practicing rheumatologists from the community. He eventually recruited full-time faculty members. Now, nine years later, Dr. Espinoza’s rheumatology section is fully staffed again. “The program is still alive and going strong. It’s stronger than it used to be prior to Katrina. I think it was part of my job to keep my section going.” Dr. Espinoza’s success is particularly impressive considering LSU’s School of Medicine is still in the process of rebuilding, with its new University Medical Center set to open in mid-2015.
Dr. Espinoza says, at one point, he did consider leaving LSU, but decided to stay in New Orleans with his family. Looking back, he knows it was the right decision. “If, at the time, I had left LSU, I’m convinced the rheumatology training program would have been finished. It wouldn’t have been able to survive, that’s for sure, because I was the only one standing.”
So he continued his work training young rheumatologists, recruiting medical students and conducting basic and clinical rheumatology research.
Through his ordeal, Dr. Espinoza demonstrated his dedication to advancing rheumatology. Today, he has found another way to ensure the future of the field by becoming a strong supporter of the Rheumatology Research Foundation. He says he appreciates the Foundation’s work to provide patients with better access to rheumatologists and support research into better treatments through funding and education. “We need to attract younger, smart individuals that go into the rheumatology specialty. We need younger rheumatologists [who] one day will replace us,” he explains. “I decided to collaborate with the Foundation because they promote research. They promote education.”
Although he hopes he will never have to build a rheumatology section from the ground up again, Dr. Espinoza knows he is still helping to build a strong future for the specialty and provide for patients through his work with the Foundation.