When Hurricane Katrina hit land in August 2005, I felt helpless. Radio and television described in detail the horror that existed less than 45 minutes from my front door. As a member – not only of this state crippled by the storm, but of the nation that watched helplessly from afar – the scenes were heart-rending, inexcusable and unacceptable.

In response to these images and the strong desire to help, I volunteered with other medical professionals in Baton Rouge. We saw countless numbers of patients and provided care to displaced families who expressed undying gratitude although they lacked a place to lay their head at night.

While necessary, this effort was not enough. So when I learned about the National Association of Free Clinics and their mission to provide free health care to the uninsured and under-insured in the New Orleans area and the country, it was a no-brainer. I would be able to help my fellow statesmen, as well as continue the legacy of citizenship that has been so prevalent in my family and is so often associated with my nation.

Our country faces another national crisis – the crisis of a population in poor health in the only industrialized nation in this world that does not provide a comprehensive health care plan to all of its citizens. While Congress continues to pick over the carcasses of the fallen health reform bills, the NAFC is not exchanging words for care, but care for solutions. Recently, the need to address this condition became more evident in a Harvard University study that reported 45,000 die each year as a result of a lack of access to care.

Closer to home are the shocking facts that 22 percent of the individuals in the state of Louisiana are without health insurance. When we look to the future as an opportunity to rebuild the greatness of our state post-Katrina, consider that we have a high infant mortality rate and that 17 percent of our youth are obese or overweight. What will the future of our nation look like if these statistics continue to be the norm?

I knew that with facts like these, I could not rest, and must continue to seek and create opportunities to help bring Louisiana out of this catastrophic existence. One of my most recent opportunities came when I volunteered to help the Communities Are Responding Everywhere (C.A.R.E) Clinic in New Orleans.

Earlier this month at the New Orleans Convention center, more than 500 volunteers and 1,000 patients met on common ground to help one another.

My first patient was a hardworking African-American male with a fasting blood sugar of almost 400. He had classical signs and symptoms of diabetes, but he was unable to help meet his insurance premiums, so he went without insurance to pay his bills. His wife, who was sitting by his side, had a history of being a borderline diabetic and told him, “You better get your butt to that free clinic!”

After diagnosing him, giving him prescriptions, and providing both he and his wife with education on diet, exercise, and community resources, we hugged and then he said one of the most beautiful phrases I have ever heard: “Thanks, Doc!”

I have never heard this phrase so frequently and sincerely as I did that day at the clinic. Something so simple and often misused became the energy that spurred me on from one patient to the next through a very long day of seeing people who should have had access to insurance, but didn’t.

I have no idea how many patients I saw that day, but poorly controlled diabetes, hypertension, and extremely elevated cholesterol were, unfortunately, the diagnoses for many of them. Most patients carried at least two major medical diagnoses. Many had not had health care since Hurricane Katrina. Some admitted to not seeing a physician for more than 10 years.

The lack of care that these people experience has a price that we all must share beyond the price that they pay with their lives. It affects Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the national deficit.

One gentleman, a patient in the first mass C.A.R.E. Clinic held in September in Houston, TX, traveled all the way from Houston to be rechecked. Then there was the woman, at least 50 years old, with grossly obvious signs of breast cancer. I also saw a 40-year-old woman with a mass the size of a grapefruit in her abdomen, and a young HIV positive male who thought all he had was a cold.

These life-altering diseases might not have been so devastating if patients had had simple access to health care, where their conditions could have been detected early.

At the clinic, no matter the diagnosis – a cold or cancer, the resounding phrase for the day was “thank you.” When I looked around I noticed that there was a unifying spirit in the convention center – I saw nurses and doctors hugging, counseling, and educating patients. The clinic flowed like a well-oiled machine from the time the first patient was seen at 8am sharp to the last at 5pm.

We saw 1,000 patients that day. Unfortunately, there are so many more we could have seen.