Things haven't been the same since Katrina.
No one denies it.
But with two mobile units and a willing staff, Dr. Persharon Dixon is working with communities to mend the Gulf Coast, while bringing a fresh perspective and medical home to the children of Mississippi.
Situated along the coastline, Dixon and a staff of 12 reach the community by visiting local schools, churches and health fairs through the Mississippi Gulf Coast Children's Health Project , using two RVs to administer care.
The goal – to provide quality pediatric care, centered on children, regardless of their insurance coverage – is a perspective Dixon said she developed while working as a doctor in Atlanta.
"One thing I learned from that was it didn't matter if [patients] were rich or poor, they all needed good care and all of them deserved the same kind of care," said the wife and mother of three.
It was there the self-described "big kid" also tapped into her love for pediatrics.
"Children don't usually make themselves sick like adults do," Dixon said. "And the other thing is that when children are sick, you can't count them out. They're response is so different from adults; they're so resilient."
Dixon brought this same appreciation for her patients to Biloxi where she's worked as project director for the past two years, fighting diabetes and obesity in children and the mindset that children go to the doctor only when something's wrong.
At first it was a missing friend and former med school classmate that brought Dixon to the coast after Katrina.
But it was the people that made her stay.
"Of course seeing the devastation was beyond belief, but really frustrating for us was to be physicians who couldn't practice here, because our licenses were from out-State," Dixon said.
That problem didn't last as Dixon found herself responding to an opening for the project director of two pediatric mobile units, moving her from a 3,000 square-foot home to a three-bedroom trailer with her family.
The project was started as a temporary relief program by the New York based organization, the Children's Health Fund and their local partner, Coastal Family Health . But once it became obvious that there was an ongoing need, the program became permanent. Now the RVs circulate Monday through Thursday in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties and occasionally at community events on Saturday. Friday is reserved for staff meetings.
One RV focuses on the physical needs of patients, while the other tackles the mental aspects. In the two vehicles, newborns to 24-year-olds can enter offices situated inside of the 138-foot RV for their physicals, pelvic exams, nutrition counseling and blood work.
"One of the things I think works a little bit better for us," said community liaison Greg Wilson, "is that children usually identify with this mobile unit a bit differently than they would a conventional clinic."
Wilson, who lived in Mississippi prior to Katrina, lays the ground work. His main duties include identifying possible areas of need, attending meetings with community members in order to talk about the mobile units and calming any concerns about legitimate pediatric care.
"When you think about holistic medical care, you've got to have parents involved in that," Wilson said. "For the most part, parents are concerned about the welfare of their kids, but a lot of times we do find kids who have problems both medically and mentally, and some of their problems stem from problems their parents have."
One child was referred to Dixon for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) after repeatedly acting up in school to the point where his mother visited daily. However it turned out that there had been issues of domestic violence in the home ever since his father lost his job, making the boy scared he wouldn't see his mother again. Examples such as these, Dixon said, prove the necessity of the two units.
Some challenges the staff has encountered include getting the word out about the clinics and meeting the needs of the areas, particularly in those counties that don't have reliable transportation. But Wilson said they are not letting these factors deter them as they venture to county schools during the day and community centers and churches in the evenings, taking the environmental challenges in stride.
"Everything is a lot better, but it is far from okay," he said. "Do we still go to schools that are having classes in trailers? Yes. Do we still go to schools that don't have full utilization of their buildings? Yes. Our goal is to give access to those who may not have it and serve as a medical home model for children."
Not only has this project allowed the staff to provide a medical home to people in need, particularly the 19- to 24-year-olds who may be at risk and lack insurance, Dixon said, but it has also allowed her to delve into areas of pediatrics and health care that were once closed to her.
With skills she learned at the Physician Executive MBA Program, at the University of Tennessee, Dixon said she's able to advocate annually in Washington, D.C., for better health care practices and policies, which should result in lower health care costs and change people's mindsets about health and health care.
"I dabble a little in it all. That's the great thing about this job," she said, "It's a potpourri of everything. All the things I wish I could do, but they weren't in the same box. Here I have that flexibility. I'm expected to push this program."
And of course the responsibility comes with a little added pressure.
"Now I feel like an obligation to do as much as I can in this position on behalf of my colleagues and the kids," Dixon said, "because I know they don't have the opportunity and the kids don't have the voice."
Fia Curley is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org