UMC's New Burn Center Fills Three-Decade Need In New Orleans


NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louis DiVincenti has almost no memory of the first few weeks, just the steady beeps and chirps that managed to pierce the fog as he lay in a hospital bed at University Medical Center.

He had arrived at UMC's new Burn Center on March 10, even before it officially opened, after being electrocuted by power lines at work. The accident caused burns on 40 percent of his body and would soon claim two of the toes on his right foot.

As the days passed, DiVincenti felt the presence of his sister Mary, who had been by his side all along, monitoring the same beeps and chirps with the rest of the center's staff. And as the narcotics used to keep the excruciating pain at bay began to ebb, DiVincenti was able to begin recognizing the faces and remembering the names of the doctors and nurses who had been helping him recover.

On a recent afternoon in May, DiVincenti stood with the aid of a walker in the courtyard of the UMC complex on Canal Street, choking back tears as he told many of those same staff members they had become like family to him.

"I'll be forever grateful for the people and the facility here for saving my life," he said, noting that he arrived with only a 2 percent chance of survival. "And I really do believe that they did save my life."

DiVincenti is recovering at home and is in outpatient physical therapy.

UMC officials say his story's happy outcome is just one of many more to come now that New Orleans — after a three-decade absence — is once again home to a burn center.

"This fills a hole in the greater New Orleans area that's been there for 30 years," state Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning said. "This is going to save people's lives, including firefighters."

Funding cuts at the former Charity Hospital forced the closure of the burn unit there 32 years ago, and West Jefferson Medical Center eliminated its unit 26 years ago. Ever since, burn victims in the New Orleans metro area have been sent to Baton Rouge or Shreveport or transported out of state.

"If you delay care for about two hours, which is the average transport time, your mortality can go up dramatically, somewhere in the order of 20 percent," said Dr. Jeffrey Carter, who came from North Carolina to become the new burn center's medical director. "A 1-in-5 chance of dying because it took you longer to get there is not really acceptable, particularly when you have the rich medical community you do in New Orleans."

The new 27,000-square-foot center has 16 inpatient ICU beds, four outpatient clinic rooms, a debridement room with a hydrotherapy tank, a dedicated operating room and a therapy and rehabilitation center.

The facility is helicopter-accessible and can be increased to a 20-bed capacity during major emergencies, Carter said.

Dr. Peter DeBlieux, UMC's chief medical officer, said the process began two years ago, when the new hospital identified creating a burn center as one of its first three initiatives, along with advancing primary care and adding palliative medicine.

In addition to cutting down on time-consuming transfers, treating burn victims locally allows them to have family members close by.

The presence of family during recovery, Carter said, "really is a big motivator in terms of people getting better."

The importance of many of the center's facilities is obvious, like the specially outfitted baths and the large, equipment-filled rehabilitation center.

Carter said burn victims can lose up to 20 percent of their muscle mass as their body fights to repair the damage, and access to a full range of physical therapy options is crucial.

Other elements are more subtle: double doors on the bathrooms for easier access, and a family gathering room (the average burn victim is in their 30s).

Carter, who is one of only 300 burn surgeons in the U.S., also pointed out that the temperature in the rooms can be taken up to 85 degrees, with the capability to bring the temperature of the patient to 95 degrees.

Burn victims, Carter explained, suffer from hypothermia due to the loss of skin and expend massive amounts of energy to try to stay warm. The steam-heated rooms can keep their temperature safely elevated without things like heat lamps, which can be dangerous.

The center provides all the additional services patients need — pharmaceutical, rehabilitation, nutrition, dermatology, psychology and counseling — in one place.

"From a patient's perspective, I couldn't have ended up in a better place in the world," DiVincenti said. "And for that I'm extremely grateful."

– by Chad Calder, AP reporter

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