Medical Triage at Encampment

The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2011

[PNHP note: The following article mentions the involvement of Dr. Mary O'Brien and several other members of the New York Metro chapter of PNHP in the Occupy Wall Street actions. For a more complete picture of the chapter's participation in the OWS movement in New York, visit their blog.]

As temperatures dip and the Occupy Wall Street protesters head into their sixth week of camping at Zuccotti Park, health professionals say they are treating activists for ailments ranging from hypothermia to skin infections, the effects of living outside in crowded conditions with little more than sleeping bags and tarps.

At a medic tent at the Lower Manhattan encampment volunteer doctors and nurses treated more than 100 patients one day this week for a variety of conditions, many of which were related to the rainy and increasingly chilly weather.

"One person had a dislocated shoulder, another with asthma," said Mary O'Brien, a member of Physicians for a National Health Program who volunteered Tuesday evening at the tent. Another had a seizure disorder and no medication, she said.

Daniel Todd, a member of the protesters' "street medic" committee, said he saw 25 cases of hypothermia on Wednesday.

The 21-year-old CPR-certified Brooklyn resident was mincing garlic and ginger on Thursday. "I'm the herbalist here," he said, explaining he would combine the ginger and garlic with apple cider and cayenne pepper to make what he calls fire water. The concoction, he said, is "for congestions and colds."

Protesters had formed their own medic committee, whose members wear reflective vests with stickers that say "99 percent ER." Now they are working with National Nurses United, which has established more formal first-aid tents at Occupy movements across the country.

The group also has circulated a petition to city officials seeking permission for protesters to erect tents to sleep in to protect them from the increasingly cold weather. City rules say tents and other structures can't be put up on public spaces. Still, on Friday night, a dozen or more personal tents began appearing.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn't respond to a request for comment.

At the National Nurses United tent, three nurses work six-hour shifts. Four doctors from PNHP also have signed up to volunteer, and several more have expressed interest. The city had threatened to dismantle the tent earlier in the week, according to the nurses group, but has allowed it to remain standing in recent days. Outside the tent, there is a "help yourself" first-aid station with bandages, antacid, witch hazel, calamine lotion and vitamins.
George Machado, 20 years old, was among the protesters who have sought medical assistance. Mr. Machado said he sprained his ankle at a protest at Washington Square Park. "There was some swelling," he said. "I went in the tent and they elevated it and iced it. This is great, I don't have health insurance."

Mr. Machado's case isn't unusual.

"Everyone I saw yesterday had no health insurance," said Maria Fehlig, an NNU member who left her family and hospital job in Las Vegas to volunteer for three weeks.

Some protesters have been directed to the nearby Access Community Health Center on Maiden Lane, which largely serves residents without health insurance.

Debra Sorkin, executive director of the center, said they have seen a steady flow of protesters. Most prevalent are fungal and skin infections and respiratory illnesses "from the torrential downpours," said Ms. Sorkin. "The first ones came to us about two weeks ago," she said, adding that they hope to make flu shots available soon.

Health care at Zuccotti Park extends beyond unions and formal organizations. Jack Berall, 70, visits Zuccotti Park about four or five times a week. A doctor with a private practice, he also works at a clinic.
In a rumpled suit and with a copy of the Occupied Wall Street Journal in his jacket pocket and a stethoscope around his neck, Dr. Berall surveys the park to see if anyone needs medical help. His main piece of advice: that protesters and visitors refrain from shaking hands. He suggests they do a "fist bump" instead.