Hurricanes Leave Doctors', Dentists' Lives in Limbo

Sept. 28, 2005 — -- Dr. Sid Ross and his wife of 42 years rode out Hurricane Katrina at a local hotel near their home in Moss Point, Miss., but his business was not so fortunate.

Ross, a 20-year Navy veteran who also holds a degree in medicine and served more than 8,000 of Moss Point's residents before the storm, has experienced a lot in his lifetime, but little prepared him for what waited outside the hotel's walls once the storm passed.

"After we got out and started looking around and saw the devastation, our hearts just sank," he said.

His practice and several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment were underwater, and his home -- once in a beautiful riverfront community -- had become an inaccessible island surrounded by floodwaters.

Medical Professionals Starting Over

Ross, 62, is one of about 6,000 doctors who were displaced by Katrina, according to a new study conducted by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Many have lost both their homes and their livelihoods -- practices that in many cases had been built through decades of hard work and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"My office was in a shopping complex and the only thing left in that shopping complex is the sign from my office," said Dr. Andrea Elenbaas, a Long Beach, Miss., dentist.

The American Dental Association estimates about 600 dentists in the Gulf Coast region have lost their practices, their homes or both.

After Elenbaas and her husband rode out the storm at her parents' house, the couple headed out -- armed with chain saws -- to cut a path through the mounds of debris to get to their home.

"My husband had to carry me some of the way because all I had were a pair of flip-flops," Elenbaas said, laughing. "When we got there and saw it, it was just shocking."

Elenbaas says her house, like her office, was completely destroyed. When asked how she felt after losing the business she spent 10 years building and the house she and her husband called home, her answer may surprise you.

"You realize who your friends are, who your family is, and you're just thankful to be alive," she said. "We look at it like it's just stuff and we can get some more of it one day."

It's a sentiment echoed by Ross, who says that in spite of the losses, he and his wife simply looked at each other and said, "We're safe."

The Cost to Rebuild

For dentists and doctors, trying to put back together the pieces of a career spent earning the trust of a community is not as easy as simply opening a new office and hanging an "Open for Business" sign.

Each state has different requirements and a reviewing process that anyone wanting to practice must comply with.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg, says Dr. James Bramson, executive director of the ADA.

"When you're setting up a brand-new dental office it's probably not unusual that it might cost you somewhere in the range of $75,000 to $100,000 a room," he said.

Bramson says a typical dental office could easily cost $250,000 just for equipment.

Ross estimates the cost for him to re-establish his clinic could reach $400,000; something he says is not likely to happen.

"It would be wonderful, but another $300,000 to $400,000 investment at age 62 is really like telling yourself you're going to live forever, and that just isn't true," he said. "It takes over 10 years to recuperate all of that."

'We're Staying'

Medicine was a second career for Ross, who graduated medical school at age 46 and started practicing medicine in 1992.

Rather than rebuild his 5,700-square-foot house and try to build his practice from the ground up again, he thinks this may be a hint.

"I think it's a sign that higher sources are making the decision for me," he said.

Despite the devastation to her community, Elenbaas says she and many of her colleagues plan to stay.

"I won't be building in the same place I was before, but we're going to stay," she said. "I think that's generally the sentiment of most dentists around here."

Areas ravaged by Katrina and now Rita can only hope that attitude holds true for both dentists and doctors, as so many in the medical community were displaced by the storm and it could be devastating if they don't stay.