Basalt doctor’s skills wasted in Katrina relief
September 22, 2005
Dr. Sid Smock wanted to put his 43 years of experience to work for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Instead, his skills as a physician were mostly wasted in a Mississippi turf war.Smock, who retired to Holland Hills near Basalt after practicing in Arizona and Michigan, volunteered earlier this month through the Red Cross to go the Gulf Coast to help care for hurricane victims.He hooked up with the Red Cross in Montgomery, Ala., then was sent to Hattiesburg, Miss., and ultimately assigned to Columbia, Miss., where he started seeing evacuees from Louisiana.Smock seemed a perfect fit for the duties because he had specialized in emergency services at one point in his career, and he worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of the evacuees suffered from ailments such as diabetes and asthma, and had run out of medication. He wrote prescriptions that a local Wal-Mart was filling.Although one Red Cross official directed him to undertake those duties, another told Smock that he had “overstepped his bounds” by writing prescriptions. He was warned that he couldn’t practice medicine in Mississippi because he wasn’t licensed there. Smock countered that he was shielded by “good Samaritan” regulations that covered volunteer doctors providing emergency services in a time of need.
Smock claimed that he later learned that the pressure on the Red Cross to prevent out-of-state doctors from helping came from local physicians. They wanted to treat people in their clinics and offices so they would receive payment, he said.”The thing that disappointed me was they felt we were taking their patients away,” Smock said. In reality, many people needed care.”I saw so many doctors and nurses that didn’t know why they were there,” he said.When Smock couldn’t get clearance to treat people, he joined the crew of a Red Cross truck that distributed food to the rural areas of southern Mississippi, where the residents were isolated, for the most part, after wind ravaged their homes. “They’re stunned,” Smock said.While out in those rural areas, he diagnosed and treated people for illnesses and injuries.”I basically said the hell with the Red Cross,” said Smock, 73, who never faced a lawsuit for malpractice. In one case, he treated a month-old baby for dehydration, something he felt bound to do regardless of rules.
After several days of making the rounds in those areas, Smock and some other volunteers drove to New Orleans to witness the damage there. It’s impossible to describe the scope of the devastation to anyone who hasn’t seen it, he said. He likened it to Ruedi Dam collapsing and the deluge of water wiping out everything down to Silt.He also encountered additional frustration in the New Orleans suburb of Slidell, where a hospital needed doctors, but Red Cross volunteers like himself couldn’t work.”It’s hard. When I see a need, I want to fill it,” he said.Smock said he believes organizational problems he witnessed were mostly the result of disorganization on a local and state rather than federal level.After two weeks in the Gulf Coast, he decided to come home. Passing out food wasn’t beneath him, he said, but it was disappointing to be unable to use his medical skills when the demand was so great.
“My purpose is not to hurt the Red Cross. It’s to make better utilization of the physicians and nurses,” Smock said.He said he believes that could be achieved through independent organizations such as the Medical Reserve Corps.He wholeheartedly supports the direction the Roaring Fork Valley is going by “adopting” a town to assist. The Carbondale fire department started the initiative by picking the town of Pearlington, Miss., to assist. Pitkin County, Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt will also help send supplies in the short term and possibly provide assistance rebuilding essential community buildings in the long term.”The idea is fantastic,” Smock said. “You’ve got your independence. That is people by grassroots helping other people out.”He also urged people to help in a small, easily overlooked way. School kids could write short letters letting the hurricane victims know they are thinking of them. The letters don’t even have to include return addresses. They could be given to the local chapter of the Red Cross and distributed in the Gulf Coast areas with Red Cross meals, he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org