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Is Ochsner complicit in a coastal conspiracy to cover up ‘collateral’ health damage from BP?


Dr. Mike Robichaux doing his thing (photo from The Advocate).

by Len Bahr, PhD*

I’m an ecologist, not a toxicologist and thus clearly unqualified to weigh in on medical issues. Neither am I paranoic, although I recognize that even some paranoics have enemies. That being said, this post implies a possible corporate conspiracy with coastal implications, which involves oil and gas interests, including BP, and Ochsner, perhaps the most familiar medical name in Louisiana.

I’ve lived in the Bayou State almost as long as Bobby Jindal, who was born here. Thus I’ve been around long enough to understand that our beloved state is, for better or worse, married to the oil and gas industry, as Bob Marshall pointed out here.

La Louisianne could be compared to a hapless housewife living perpetually barefoot and pregnant with her common-law, corporate oil husband who rules the roost, doles out a chicken feed allowance…and discourages squawking. The oil business can’t be faulted for aggressively pursuing its own interests, however, as long as the hen-like Ms. Louisiana timidly fears that her cocky husband will fly the coop if she asks him to help pay for the extensive damage that he’s done to the chicken house, especially during the sixties and seventies.

On the first day of Spring I heard a disturbing story with overtones about political, energy and medical corporate interests, which sounded very much like a John Grisham novel. I probably would have dismissed the account as merely anecdotal, had it not come from the mouth of a distinguished Louisiana physician and former state politico, who’s also a credible friend and coastal colleague.

Michael Robichaux, M.D., is a practicing physician from Raceland, Louisiana, who is known affectionately as ‘Dr. Mike’ by thousands of his patients and friends up and down the bayou. When this indefatigable and passionate 65 year-old former LSU football star, one term state senator, part time environmental evangelist and full time physician speaks, it always pays to listen.

I was listening recently when he addressed the members of the Baton Rouge Press Club on March 21. Amy Wold reported on the event in The Advocate on March 22 but her account didn’t touch on Mike’s implication of a conspiracy to cover up serious public health impacts of the Macondo well blowout…and on possible complicity by Ochsner.

Robichaux began his remarks with a background description of how the US government created a huge subsidy for the oil and gas industry in terms of excluding oil field waste from the definition of hazardous waste. That legal loophole allows dangerous wastes to be disposed inexpensively in unlined pits in coastal Louisiana. This is at least one environmental policy that the state doesn’t complain about to the Obama administration!

The main thrust of Mike’s talk, however, was to describe treating 40-some patients in recent weeks and months, all of whom suffered from a wide range of symptoms that he believes resulted from exposure to constituents of the oil released from the Macondo well blowout. The following is an account that the speaker distributed to his audience, which I edited heavily for length and limited to two patients who were (poorly) treated at Ochsner facilities:

Most of my patients live in south Louisiana and I know many fishermen and oilfield workers who were involved in the oil cleanup. Nevertheless, until a few months ago I had heard no medical complaints about oil exposure. Then I was requested to draw blood from ‘Al,’ a commercial diver from Mississippi who had become violently ill after diving in the Macondo plume.

I have since interviewed and collected blood samples from patients hailing from Florida, Alabama and the entire Louisiana coast, each with a compelling story about oil exposure and serious illness.

Paul is a 22 year old who swam in the gulf in front of his home in Pensacola. He soon developed seizures and was taken to the hospital, where extensive studies were performed and he was finally diagnosed with pseudo (psychogenic) seizures. After inadequate health care in Florida he was transferred to Ochsner Hospital in New Orleans at my behest…and later regret.

Soon after arrival at the hospital emergency room (after an Angel Flight from Pensacola) he was ordered to be discharged, despite a series of seizures that required me and his wife to restrain him. He had been told by his ER physician that an MRI would be postponed until he stopped faking seizures.

Huge doses of intravenous anti-seizure medicines were administered in my presence, which had little effect on his symptoms. Unlike a patient with epileptic seizures, Paul could hear and understand conversations when his seizures stopped, but couldn’t speak or otherwise communicate until later. The reaction to his condition by his health providers revealed ignorance, arrogance…and fear.

I was unable to speak to the ER physician who had claimed that Paul was faking his seizures. The resident physician and his attending nurse witnessed and recorded the seizures in his chart and he was admitted into the ICU and when I visited him the next day he was so drugged that I couldn’t speak to him. Then I was told by his ICU charge nurse that I shouldn’t be in the room, despite my telling him that I was Paul’s physician from another Ochsner Clinic.

After making my feelings known to hospital officials I made arrangements to transfer Paul to my care in the Ochsner facility in Raceland, with a young neurologist to assist in his care.

She later called to report that Paul did not meet the criteria for a true seizure disorder. I called the hospital administrator, who concurred with the neurologist and said that we could not admit him to Ochsner St. Anne Hospital. With regard to the seizure detecting criteria used on Paul, drugging a patient into a comatose condition is not an appropriate means to assess a disorder, such as he was experiencing.

This was the first time since 1975 that I have ever been denied the right to admit a patient to any hospital, under any circumstance.

After not receiving any specific treatment for his disorder at Ochsner, Paul traveled to Cedars Sanai Hospital in Los Angeles, where no definitive diagnosis or treatment was established. He returned home still suffering but, based on seeing him a week ago, he is now seizure free…but he has lost motor and sensory nerve functions in both his left arm and left leg.

Freddie reported severe burning in his eyes after being exposed to something while working near oil booms. His vision reportedly began failing almost immediately and he is now sightless. He was told by an ophthalmologist at Ochsner clinic that his optic nerves are irreversibly scarred but his request for a letter to support the cost of health care from oil related funds was denied. He was reportedly told, “The oil that got into your eyes did not cause your blindness.” Freddie currently owes $180,000 in medical bills, I assume to Ochsner Hospital, and is unable to pay.

Why would a medical facility owed such a debt refuse to acknowledge that BP and the other perps in the disaster should be responsible for paying?

How can this be happening; how can state and federal officials allow the people they swore to protect to be so abused by a foreign corporation?

You, gentle readers, can draw your own conclusions about the implications of Dr. Mike’s account. The reimbursement of legitimate health problems potentially caused directly by the Macondo well blowout…or by BP’s oil cleanup efforts, would no doubt set a precedent that could carry national implications re the risks of offshore energy production.

Does the story told by Dr. Mike indicate inordinate influence and even fear of the industry that has long dominated the politics of Louisiana? You be the judge.

*Founding editor

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