For the last seven years, Alcon Laboratories Inc. has broadcast a medical procedure from the Ambulatory Surgery Center of Louisiana, live, via satellite, to the American Academy of Ophthalmologists' annual convention, as part of a teaching program that offers CME credit for the physicians in the audience.
This year, there was a big problem six weeks before the broadcast. The host facility, the Ambulatory Eye Surgery Center of Louisiana, run by world-renowned eye surgeon, Stephen F. Brint, MD, is in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb. (Brint is also an associate clinical professor of ophthalmology at Tulane University.) And in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Brint's clinic was wet — and it wasn't expected to be up and running in time for the AAO convention in October.
“It takes a year's planning to do this,” says Carol O. Duke, BS, global medical education director, with Fort Worth, Texas — based Alcon. “Then Katrina hit, then Rita hit. For three weeks, we didn't know what had happened at the surgery center because Dr. Brint and his people couldn't get back in there. Then we found it had a couple inches of water. It wasn't washed away, but in a surgery center, it was major. There's always something. But never have we had anything like this,” she adds. “Never this challenging. Each day brought a new twist to the saga.”
Boyd to the Rescue
The complications reached far beyond the venue issue. The surgeonconsisted of U.S. and international doctors who had obtained a one-day teaching medical license from the State of Louisiana. Moving the procedures out of state would be a logistical nightmare, as they would have to meet the requirements of the new destination and there just wasn't enough time.
Duke did, nonetheless, consider other domestic and international locales before finding a facility in Baton Rouge that offered to host Brint and his visiting faculty from New York, Ohio, Japan, Argentina, and Brazil.
“So I had the facility,” Duke says. “And I had hotel rooms for 35 people in Baton Rouge. Then, due to local issues in Baton Rouge, we lost the hotel rooms within 2 weeks of the program. Now I had a surgical facility but no rooms for the doctors to sleep. At one point we talked about having the surgeons just go to Chicago and show videos of previous surgeries. But we really wanted to offer the live surgery demo if at all possible.”
Instead of canceling, Duke called New Orleans — based destination management specialist Bonnie Boyd, president of Bonnie Boyd and Company. Only one problem: Boyd, like many other residents of the Crescent City, was relocated by the hurricanes.
“I didn't even know where Bonnie was — I just knew she wasn't in her home,” Duke says. “I called her cell phone and hired her to start looking for a new hotel for me in Baton Rouge.”
Boyd's office, in the New Orleans Central Business District, is just four blocks from the badly damaged Superdome. But her office survived the storm intact. And her home in the Garden District was relatively unscathed. “We were among the lucky ones,” she says. “I have four staffers who lost everything. They're coping; They're glad to have a place to work.”
Grateful herself for the work at a time when most of her business was washed away, Boyd searched high and low. But there wasn't a spare room to be found within 100 miles of Baton Rouge. She even called plantation owners and inquired about pitching tents for the doctors. Then Boyd called her old friend Hans Wandfluh, president and general manager of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, located in the heart of the French Quarter. He guaranteed her that he could make the meeting happen.
Pre-Hurricane Katrina, the Royal Sonesta was an around-the-clock operation with 500 employees. After the big blow, the staff consisted of a mere 140 men and women, most of whom were themselves residents of the 484-room hotel.
“We work around the clock,” Wandfluh says. “Our people are willing to do all kinds of jobs they never did before. We have front-desk agents who were never agents; waiters who were not waiters. Our gourmet restaurant is not open; our informal restaurant is. All our bars are open. We try to make it as simple as possible for employees.”
Boyd was warned that her guests should not expect to find the usual quiet hotel from pre-Katrina days because of the FEMA staffers and construction workers on the premises. But the doctors were excited about the adventure.
Chef Paul Prudhomme, proprietor of the world-famous restaurant K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, was Boyd's next call. He was in China, promoting New Orleans cuisine. Prudhomme promised to come home and cook for Boyd's guests.
New Orleans officials thought Boyd was crazy. “They told me: ‘You can't do this; you can't do that,’” she recalls. ‘You won't have this; you won't have that.’” To which Boyd replied, “Why the hell not?”
With lodgings arranged in New Orleans and the surgery set in Baton Rouge for Saturday, October 15 from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., Carol Duke reported back to Brint and his administrator. Brint told her that it was nerve-racking enough for the surgeons to do an operation live with a thousand people watching them — they didn't need the additional stress of driving back and forth from Baton Rouge the morning of the surgery. He told her he would get his center up and going and recertified in time for the broadcast.
Brint's first major task was locating his staff. Some are still not back in their homes, but enough of them were found to repair and restore the surgery center. Then they had to find patients. “Before Katrina, in normal times, Dr. Brint would have a backlog of people already scheduled for procedures,” Duke says. “What they did was call scheduled patients first to see who was still in town and wanted their surgery.”
With the lodgings and surgery set for New Orleans, the surgeons would still have to fly in and out of Baton Rouge; There were no other options.
As much faith as Duke had in her friend Boyd — and Boyd in Wandfluh — the unstable situation in much of New Orleans still left her uneasy. “All along the way, I asked Bonnie, ‘Are you sure about this?’ She kept reassuring me. She said, ‘It's good, it's good.’ I have a lot of faith in Bonnie Boyd; her word was good enough for me; I didn't worry after that,” says Duke.
When the surgeons arrived in New Orleans on Friday, October 14, they checked into the Royal Sonesta and made an introductory visit to Brint's facility to familiarize themselves with the physical plant and the production plan. Then they were feted with red carpet treatment at K-Paul's restaurant, which reopened just in time to welcome them — and with Prudhomme himself on hand to cook for them. It was the first business the popular dining spot had done since Hurricane Katrina hit.
“It was quite inspirational,” Duke says. “And in all the years I've done it, this was the finest faculty dinner we've ever had. We invited all of Dr. Brint's staff and the faculty and Chef Prudhomme and Hans Wandfluh to join us.”
Ironically, the curfew in the French Quarter was lifted that very night. The next day, Saturday, was showtime.
Of Saints and Surgery
The New Orleans office of AVW-TELAV Audio Visual Solutions brought in all the necessary audiovisual equipment for broadcast and satellite uplink from the surgery center, connecting with a satellite pickup at McCormick Center's Arie Crown Theater in Chicago, where the American Academy of Ophthalmologists' annual convention was in progress.
In a normal year, the program moderator would begin by introducing the visiting faculty panel, then lead into the first live case. This time the moderator went instead to Brint, who explained what he and his staff did to get the eye surgery center up and running again. Brint did a walk-through tour of his center, thanking his staff on camera for their remarkable dedication and performance under adverse circumstances. He wanted everybody to know the facility was fine and that people were coming back to New Orleans.
And despite all the complications and just plain craziness, the surgery went off without a hitch.
When the broadcast was almost over, Duke instructed the AV team to add a little New Orleans seasoning to the conclusion: “When The Saints Come Marching In.” “The whole audience just erupted in applause,” reported Duke's colleague, Deborah Berry, who managed the audience side of the program for Alcon.
After the live surgery, Duke got on a bus with the surgical faculty for the two-hour ride to Baton Rouge, where they boarded the only American Airlines flight to Chicago and attended the remainder of the convention.
“The live broadcast was the talk of the meeting,” she says. “The doctors were shocked that we could continue on. It felt really good to accomplish what we set out to do. Even with all the roadblocks — literally! — we still went back to the original plan. Everybody had heard so much bad news about New Orleans; this was good P.R. for the city.”
Royal Sonesta Survival Story
Hans Wandfluh, president and general manager of the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans, combined disaster planning, business smarts, fortunate geography, and a garbage truck in an unparalleled recovery for his landmark facility.
“Our hotel sustained little damage,” he says. “I stayed here through the storm with a staff of 30. We stayed the whole time. We defended the hotel. We got a generator quickly to power up and the hotel never really closed. We sent [staff in] our laundry truck to Mobile, Ala., to go shopping. We lucked out; the water only came to the middle of the 200 block of Bourbon Street.” (The hotel is at 300 Bourbon Street.)
When the storm ended, instead of throwing open the doors to welcome the world back in, Wandfluh actually nailed the doors shut because of the simultaneous looting and rescue operations.
Cleanup after the storm was easier than for other properties because “we have our own garbage truck, so we were able to get rid of all our trash where other hotels had to wait a month to clean out,” Wandfluh says.
How many hotels own their own garbage truck? And why would they want to?
If you've ever been there, you know that the streets in the French Quarter are not as wide as in other parts of New Orleans. For city-owned trucks to come rolling through the streets and alleys to pick up a standard big bin is difficult. The trucks almost always damaged the Royal Sonesta. So Wandfluh got fed up and bought his own garbage truck.
“The insurance is high on it — I was going to sell it,” he says of his mindset shortly before Katrina. “But now! Little did I think a garbage truck would be so important to a hotel! We even took it out and cleaned up the 300 block of Bourbon Street with it. The 200 block was dirty, the 400 block was a mess, but 300 was beautiful! And my guys just did it. I didn't even have to ask.”
“As for the trash, it was dangerous to get rid of it,” he continues. “The police weren't willing to give up manpower to give our truck safe passage in and out of town. But when we offered to move their trash, it became a horse of another color. Sanitation becomes one of the most important things in a situation of this nature.”