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Storm-hit Keesler medical center sets graduation

Keesler Air Force Base will graduate its first dentists and honor its first batch of doctors-in-training since Hurricane Katrina flooded its hospital and scattered its medical programs across the country.

The ceremony Monday will recognize more than a dozen physicians who were the first to return to a residency program on the base since the killer storm and have now completed the first year of their residency.

Keesler in Biloxi had one of the largest medical training staffs in the Air Force before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. The hospital suffered $146 million in damage from the massive storm surge and its resident medical students were transferred to other bases with similar programs.

“Make no mistake,” 81st Medical Group commander Brig. Gen. Doug Robb said. “Keesler Medical Center is back … and better than ever.”

Dental residents returned in 2006 and internal care and surgical residents came back to the base in July 2007. Fifteen of those physicians and eight graduating dentists will be recognized Monday during the ceremony that is considered a major step in the program’s hurricane recovery.

“It’s definitely a milestone,” base spokesman Stephen H. Pivnick said.

Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. James Roudebush will speak at the ceremony.

The 81st Medical Group at Keesler was praised for its efforts after the storm battered the Gulf Coast. With the medical center’s basement flooded and its power grid destroyed, medical staff grabbed flashlights to perform an emergency cesarian section even as Katrina lashed the coast.

After the storm, the 81st set up field hospitals and provided first aid to storm victims, and later set up a temporary primary care facility in a dental unit on the base.

Limited primary care services were moved back into the first floor of the hospital in November 2005, but some residency programs didn’t return for nearly two years while further repairs were made.

“Essentially, the hospital had to close down because of the loss of a power grid and a lot of the clinics and specialties ceased to operate for a period of time,” Pivnick said.

More than 27,000 military retirees, active duty members and their families use the facility and 48,000 are eligible to do so.

But because of the lack of available facilities after the storm, medical residents didn’t have patients to care for and were moved to other locations to prevent them from falling behind.

“As the patient population returned, it made sense for the residents in surgery and internal medicine to return here to their specialties,” Pivnick said.

Base officials hope that obstetrics and gynecology residents and those in pediatrics will return soon. They are currently working in Jackson at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which has partnered with the base.

While the dental graduates honored Monday will move on to assignments at air bases, the internal medicine residents will continue their programs at Keesler through 2010. And general surgery residents are expected to graduate in 2012.