Sunday, October 09, 2005

Charity Hospital

Hello, America. You fancy yourself the proudest member of the First World, and since you're reading this on your computer, you probably are. Got air-conditioning? Cable TV? A microwave? Congratulations, citizen, you're doing just fine. But, as some of you are learning, uncomfortably, there's another America, the Third World version. Dark and brutal, dimly lit by a faint flickering American Dream high up and far away. That's where I come from. If you could embody this shadow America in a single institution you'd be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where my mom was born. (read more below)

A cousin I never had a chance to meet died here. My uncle Sonny and Aunt Dusty had an infant here. After delivery he was taken away and placed on a bare table by the overworked staff. He had been low birth weight, probably due to malnutrition, and died that day. Being too poor to arrange funeral services, Sonny took his dead baby home with him, sitting on his lap in a little plain coffin, and buried his son himself. Three weeks later Charity Hospital called to tell him to come claim his dead son. They didn't even know he was gone.

Charity Hospital loomed large as a horror house for my family. They lost themselves there, literally. Eyes. Teeth. Limbs. Lives. All butchered, then forgotten about. Your cat or dog, First World America, was getting better health care than the poor wretched humans forced to decide between nothing, and Charity. And that was their only choice.

It's always been that way down here. Charity Hospital was founded over 250 years ago, which makes it about the oldest hospital in America. It was wretched from the start, because, after all, you get what you pay for, and this was literally a "Hospital for the Poor."

In 1815 someone wrote, upon visiting Charity Hospital, that it "served no purpose than to confine the wretched and compel them to die in a place contrary to their choice." Patients were found abandoned. Chickens wandered in, and their shit covered the furniture. The mattresses on which the patients slept were filthy with “the visible marks of the putrid discharges of those who had died on them of the most pestilential diseases."

This is how the other half dies, citizens. 1736. 1815. 1967. 2005. The years keep rolling by, a time lapse stream of lives lived hard and lost easy. Welcome to the new era, same as the old era. Everything new is old again.

I told my mom that after what happened at Charity last month, the flooding, the abandonment, the death, the bodies floating up from the basement morgue, the damage to what had been damaged its whole life, that they were thinking of tearing it down. She said she's been hoping for that since she was born.

See also:
Lord I Just Can't Keep from Crying

An Afternoon Of Forgotten Stories


Steve said...

Your words sting brother, but they are the truth. A truth too many people decide to ignore. People in Pascagoula are sleeping outside a month after the Hurricane? Oh lets see what that outrageous Paris Hilton is up to now instead.

They just dont understand, they have no concept that the ghettoes of New Orleans and Baton Rouge were below thrid world poverty levels pre Katrina, and they dont, didnt and wont care, except for the efforts of individuals like you.

Anonymous said...

you always leave me wishing i had something worthwhile to say.

lesbonstemps said...

As bad as Charity was, it did have a really first-rate trauma center. About a fourth of New Orleanians had no insurance whatsoever, and Charity was the only medical care available for them. I know people who received good care there. Yes, you had to wait and it was pretty bare bones, but it wasn't much worse than any other hospital that serves poor people in this country. (County in L.A., for example.) Until we get national health insurance (and I'm not holding my breath for that), hospitals like Charity are the only thing between poor people and no medical care at all.

Lurid said...

My "American" guilt feels less American each day, when this third-world America becomes more and more evident. Now it's just...survivor guilt.

bigshoulders said...

I've just returned from the Gulf Coast of MS, and I know i'll never be the same. It's heartbreaking to read about New Orleans, but why has Mississippi been forgotten, I wonder? There are people standing in lines everyday to get the basic necessities of life. Water and Food. My heart goes out to LA and MS.

This doesn't even seem like America anymore.

Anonymous said...

Your picture left the 'taste' of Charity at the back of my throat. My friend Jerry was taken there after a car wreck 10 years ago, and after getting over the shock of the open wards and the general lack of care, we were glad that there was a place that took him in when he was bleeding and unconscious and poor. Where will the next generation of Jerrys go, or are we to be left in the street? Is the compulsion to even appear to help those less fortunate gone from our character?

Anonymous said...

An amazingly powerful post, Clayton. It brought tears to my eyes.

Remember those "Louisiana: Third World and Proud Of it" tees? I was so insulted by those because they were worn in the tongue-in-cheek way that didn't reflect the reality of third-world living in the slightest, though so many in New Orleans (and elsewhere in the states) lived just that way.

Why can't we see that everyone benefits when everyone is taken care of? That nearly defines our political schism right now, this crippling divide between those who see their neighbors as themselves and those who don't.

Take care -- thank you for sharing your stories and photos with us.

Steve said...

"Why can't we see that everyone benefits when everyone is taken care of?"

Absolutely eloquent Kate, and a question all too many people are willing to ignore, including the ones who supposedly want to help.

" My "American" guilt feels less American each day"

As strange as it is, I'm glad to hear that you all feel the same way, I was feeling out of sorts, as if something was wrong with me.

Nobody Special said...

Be carefull where you go with your camera. You don't want to get a beating from the POLICE. So much for a caring nation. The people who are supposed to "protect and serve" are the ones committing the crimes. It has been largly talked about but no prood until now:

Take care to keep your camera out of view when near rabid police on the prowel.

What could they be enforcing? Law in a lawless state of being, where a 65 year old man was beaten for supposed "public intoxication". How else are these people to cope with the devastation, if they can't even drown a few tears with the soothing effects of alchohol. It's not like the government is using that aid money to help these people (See my blog post:, so they then add injury to insult.

And with places like Charity not in use, where is he to go for medical attention?

If they are not carefull, they will end up with riots similar to the Rodney King beatings. You can only push us so far...

Miche said...

What happens when a community becomes large and technologically advanced? America is the answer.

Everyone is so jaded by the Paris Hiltons and George Bushes that their care-less notions never get tended. We no longer see our brick-and-mortar neighbors. Nay, the sparkle in our eyes lies instead on the rich and famous.

We don't like truth. We are a nation borne on lies.

America likes to believe there is no such thing as a 15-year-old girl getting deserted by her parents, then marrying a man who for three years abused her in every form of the word. No, America doesn't see this. America blinds herself to the poverty, crime, and desolate minds.

Currently I struggle in the yuppy nation of Concord, New Hampshire. I see the life of poverty ignored in every facet of law, media, and community. There is no such thing as empathy - only me, myself, and I. This world will not continue as it stands, never worry, in 20 years the entire nation will face such an apocalypse that eyes can do nothing but open.

In time, your story will no longer stand alone. Everyone will walk in these same shoes if government doesn't realize we must focus on the third world within ourselves.

The voices of the poor will soon unite. Have hope, my friend. Truly, the meaning of our little lives is to believe.

- Trisha
Mayo Brains - Spreading Thought

Anonymous said...


First of all, I'm a photographer, an old darkroom dog who does mostly B&W landscapes. Your work is truly beautiful. The shot of Charity in this latest post is chilling.

I'm also an ex-New Orleanian. My wife and I moved there in '85 and left in '91. Our first child was born there. Our hearts stayed when we left.

Lately, I've been thinking: will I ever eat another poboy at St. Roch Seafood? Will I ever spend another sweaty summer night dancing at Tipitina's? Will I ever walk under the oaks at City Park again? Will I ever walk into the Gospel Tent at Jazzfest again, feeling the goosebumps from the energy in that tent? Will I ever walk those streets with my camera again, with beauty and decay wherever I look?

All of these are trivial matters when compared to what your family and so many others have endured. Still.........the thought of America without New Orleans, the New Orleans, the real deal, is just about too sad to get my head around.

Anonymous said...

As bad as the world is, there is hope beyond it. And there are people of hope and faith who show a love in the mist of utter greed and selfishness around them.

Anonymous said...

How on earth did you get this shot of Charity, Clayton? How did you get the lighting like that? This is one you should offer up for sale; it's so incredibly on-point in its Gotham City likeness.

I was at Charity for one full night with a friend who had MS. Truly frightening experience, sharing the waiting area with gunshot victims and prisoners, crack-heads shaking in withdrawal, vomiting children, and a silent mop-up staff who calmly made the rounds, shifting all of us over to reach the spills of bodily fluids. Horrible place. BUT, amazing people who work there, and despite the horror, poor people do receive decent medical care for no cost other than surviving the waiting room. It's not Baptist, Tuoro, or Ochsner, but the staff is of the same caliber.

At some point, are you going to let us all in on the secret of your genius in these shots?

High Power Rocketry said...

Great images as usual... Not feeling guilty about my wealth just yet though.


Anonymous said...

Having worked in Charity as a resident for two years, I have seen it from the inside...although there is a lot of truth to his description of 'Big Charity', the building WAS built in 1936--WAY before any of the modern healthcare equipment...

And it's not the physical plant that made the is the medical and dental residents, the nurses and nursing students, the staff, the grounds keepers, the staff physicians that could be practicing anywhere, USA that make Charity, Charity...

New Orleans is New Orleans b/c of Big Charity...the only LEVEL 1 truama center in South LA and Gulf Coast MS.

Yes, it sucks getting your jaw broken on Bourbon St when punks rob you...while you're in town for your convention...walking down Bourbon St. with your Huge Ass beer in hand, beads around your neck at Thanksgiving (which TOTALLY makes you a tourist btw) seeing stuff you really can't see any place else...and you end up at Charity at 3 a.m. Sunday and don't get seen until noon w/ a flight leaving at 3 pm, b/c 5 gsw's, 7 mva's and 1 coonass who cut his fingers off in the prop of his shrimpboat come first...but when you are seen; you're seen by a resident that may have been up since Friday @ 6 a.m. and on call all weekend and will treat you as well or better than any pt seen that day...b/c WE won't you to feel like we care...we'll treat you, we'll make sure you're comfortable and we'll make sure you have adequate follow-up...even giving you our pager number so your own physician in Kansas can call us for any consultation...and we make less than minimum wage when you average out the hours worked a week...And you know, WE BITCHED everyday too...but now, all of us can't wait to go back...YOU, AMERICA are better served by physicians and dentists and nurses trained at Charity...

so, damn it if you will...but the next time you go down in the quarter with your mardi gras beads in July, make sure you wear a helmet...they'll be no charity residents to take care of you...

To my fellow Charity residents, MD's, DDS...I miss you. I miss Charity. Maybe we will get that new hospital...but w/o you, it will never be the same...Ben

AmeriKaKanKare said...

You have quite a great talent of generating ideas. you are a true wordsmith.

Keep up the good writing.

Our American Dream Must Be Shared with Others

thatfarmgirl said...

Clayton - is the photo of Charity one of those you will be making available for purchase? I have someone who is very interested.

Anonymous said...

They're tearing it down...congrats. Im sure its quite a feeling of relief...they're covering it on Inside Edition, and I can see what you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Oh there is nothing to worry about, our great leader and President has made 8 trips down there I have no idea how many was inAirforce One at 200,000 per hour to fly, and remember he actually spent one night there at what cost I only have a guess.
Why he actually "helped" build a house for Habitat for Humanity, I think he must have drove at least 3 nails but he had dozens of pictures taken.
I know everyone is sooo proud to have him there to soothe your pain.
Tell him to spend the money on helping those that need it instead of wasting it on his trips!

Anonymous said...

Sad as it is to hear first hand of the way that rich Americans treat their poor fellow-countrymen, it is even more horrifying to know the way they are treating others around the world. Even worse are the lies behind which this evil is hidden.

All of us, wherever we live, have cause for fear because of the global reach of this evil philosophy that boasts of its foundation in a religion that is supposed to be based on love.

Alas, we are all the victims of a cruel deceipt perpetrated largely, but not entirely, by rich and powerful Americans.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, Charity hospital. That's where I was born, too. They told my 15 year old mother to shut up, not to cry, that "having a baby wasn't that bad". She was in a room with about a dozen other women, also in labor.

That was 1973.

Anonymous said...

i may be reading this on a computer, but you are writing on one!! what gives?????

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant blog, the pictures are amazing and your message is loud, clear and truthfull. What is happening is incredibly sad. The only positive coming out of this is that Americans are finally having to come out of complete ignorance about the state of their country. Personally I am shocked to see how little Americans know about their own world and why the rest of the world hates America so much.

missbhavens said...

This is simply a perfect photo. Perfect.

Anonymous said...

it's disgusting what's happened to new orleans. I knew there was a hidden third world in the US, but have been shocked by the sheer callousness of the bush regime this time. I didn't know it could get THAT bad.

let's not forget that other third world either - one that suffers daily like you have. one that has no claim to citizenship because of the laws that divide our world allowing free travel of super-exploiting corporations and not the labour it's allowed to exploit.

you may feel invisible and your govenment wants to make sure you are. but you are not as invisible as the millions of others in this world.

Anonymous said...

I do agree that some of the conditions at Charity were harsh and antiquated. The building was opened in 1939, just ealier emough to miss a lot of technological advances. Charity was going to torn down before the hurricane. The hurricane just hastened the process.

What was the state to do? Get rid of it and wacth the death rate go up because no one would treat them with out money or insurance? Unfortunately, or furtunately depending on how you look at it, Charity was necessary.

Like it or not, Charity, in a better form, is still necessary. I can't wait to see the new buildings, I've already seen the model.

I think I should also add that our elected officials have a lot to do with New Orleans looking as though it were a third world country. Maybe this incident with get peolple to vote on intelligence and experience rather than popularity and race.

The Good Doctor said...

Charity may not have been perfect, in fact, I'll agree it was pretty far from. But I have been a doctor in actual third world countries and you'd be amazed how good you had it. Charity had it's flaws but they are neither the facility's fault nor the doctors. I did my residency at Charity in the early 90's and late 80's. The doctors there do all they can with what they got. For all that they had to work with, which wasn't much, they did an extraordinary job. The loss of Charity is a terrible loss for the city. Charity would take in anybody, without the crooked politcians that run that city will fix away, as they always do, to leave those that have little with less than they ever had to begin with. So, think of this while you bash the best hospital that those without will ever have in that city. I am heartbroken by what happened to New Orleans, I love that city with my life, but the doctors and the administrators of Charity were good people. Your circumstance is not their fault.

Anonymous said...

For those that want to complain about Charity...what would you have done w/o it if you can't afford to go anywhere else? Let us know if Houston has better hospitals for the poor.
For those that want to complain about being stuck in New Orleans during a catastrophic hurricane...Not unless your disabled and can't leave...why sit around and complain? I've heard people say, "i can't leave, I don't own a car." If you have legs, then walk out. I've been a NOLA resident for 11 years, I know it's a long walk, but hey, the mayor warned us on August 27 to get out. That's two days! You'd be suprised how far you can walk in two days! I walk everyday for exercise. Walking is easy! If I didn't have a car, believe me I would be walking to Slidell. And yes, I have children too...if one of them said, "Mom, I can't, it's too far." Believe me, baby, I would grab a grocery buggy from the Winn-Dixie on the way out and say, "get in dah-lin, we ain't stayin!"
Ya know, about 100+ years ago, people didn't have cars. Our society is so dependent on modern technology that we forget we still have legs to get around with.

Mike said...

If you want every hospital in America to be like Charity, vote for socialized medicine.

Anonymous said...

I have a story about Charity Hospital. You can read it in Women's World magazine, on sale Oct. 9th, I think. It is under"Angel Stories" and is the story of the Angel I saw when I was on my way to check our son out of the hospital after he was treated for pneumonia. He is a grown man now with 4 children, and doesn't remember the Angel. I have never forgotten it. I will post the story here after it is published.

Anonymous said...

I worked at Charity for 9 years! In the ER. On two occasions we did not get paid for several months at a time. BUT we kept going to work, kept being spit on and threatened by drunks and additcts kept trying to patch up a generation of children that were killing each other in the streets of New Orleans. We had over-worked, under staffed, poor equipment but I gurentee you are hearts and souls were left there. I held the hand of a woman who lost her 8th son to the streets of New Orelans, I've deliverd babies on the ramp in back seats of cars to teen moms with out any prenatal care. There is so much more to that place then your family members distruction and I am sorry that so many of you suffered. At some point, we must take control of our own health care not be a victim speak up not out. Demand better care for your self by taking better care of your self! Ask questions and demand answeres until u understand why, what when side effects benifits what can i expect how do I care for my self? Think About it and check out a book from the 80's "a day in the life of america" Many of thoes people in the photos are still there not because they cant work else where, because they LOVE Charity hospital and the people it serves. By the way the best trauma docs and nurses are trained there. Ask anybody.
Charity nurse

Anonymous said...

I am a nurse, i am so saddened to know anyone in this country cannot get healthcare. You know the old saying,"you can't help anybody else if you don't help yourself first" we need to take care of our own FIRST.

Anonymous said...

I was an instr. of basic nsg. at Charity Sch. of Nsg. in the 70's and again in the 80's. It was bad, but not much worse than private hospitals where poor practices, lack of cleanliness, fatal errors, and incompetant practioners are hidden. There were many cases where caring made a difference to patients at Charity. There was as much of this caring as at any hospital I have worked at.
In general hospitals are hazardous places. Al of us would do well to stay out of them if we can. Karen O. Mason

Anonymous said...

Charity Hospital has saved many lives. It had a first-rate trauma program. It was a place to go when someone had no money or insurance. It was an asset to New Orleans and SHOULD be re-built.