RED HOOK — On the fourth day without power at the Red Hook Houses, Renette A. Fisher-Benn, a 63-year-old diabetic, had to throw out the insulin she needs to stay healthy because the medicine requires refrigeration.
The electric-powered oxygen tank that helps with her respiratory problems was out of commission, so she resorted to using a smaller battery-operated model. And she couldn't refill her blood pressure medication because the local pharmacy was flooded.
Luckily the medical crisis didn't last. Fisher-Benn was able to route her prescription to a different pharmacy, and power was restored to her apartment last week, though she still has no heat and uses her stove to stay warm.
"Everything ain't peaches and cream, but when I wake up in the morning, I say thank you to God," Fisher-Benn, who lives alone with her cat, Stuff, said.
But thousands of Red Hook residents are still struggling without power, heat, hot water — even the ability to flush their toilets. And many, like Fisher-Benn, live with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure.
Their risk of developing potentially life-threatening complications grows with each passing day they spend without basic utilities.
Now a makeshift medical operation has sprung up to help keep locals — especially the homebound elderly — healthy until power is restored.
It's been spearheaded by Matthew Kraushar, a 26-year-old med student who lives on Van Brunt Street. He was helping bail out a flooded basement the day after Hurricane Sandy when a staffer for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who had heard Kraushar was a studying medicine walked up and asked him to lend a hand with health care needs.
Kraushar jumped in with both feet. He set up a pop-up clinic in a back room at Red Hook Initiative, the local nonprofit that's been transformed into a hurricane relief center. That took care of walk-in patients, but Kraushar knew there were others who needed help but couldn't make it to RHI.
"I was concerned, knowing what happenened with (Hurricane) Katrina, that people would go from being (chronically ill) and stable to being acute and falling off a cliff," Kraushar said. "People might not even find these people until they're dead in their apartments."
Kraushar was determined to find them first. Working with RHI and members of Occupy Wall Street, he embarked on a mass medical assessment of Red Hook residents. He sent teams of volunteers to canvass the neighborhood door-to-door twice. Residents filled out basic medical intake forms about their needs.
Kraushar's team managed to reach 300 people and made sure they were medically stable and had enough medication to last a week.
The neighborhood's health care needs are growing more serious every day, local medical personnel said. Exposure to the cold and stress is starting to take a toll. Residents are developing high fevers and flu.
There are children like 10-year-old Tyrone Walker, who needs an electric-powered nebulizer to keep his asthma at bay. His mom Nia has bags under her eyes from staying up to make sure her son is breathing regularly through the night.
"Asthma is something that you don't know when it's going to happen," Nia Walker said. "It's like you're a sitting duck. I understand that some people lost everything. But what am I supposed to do?"
The neighborhood got a boost on Wednesday when its only clinic — the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center on Richards Street — reopened. The clinic's first floor and pharmacy were destroyed by floodwaters, but employees salvaged some exam tables and rounded up EKG and blood pressure machines from Addabbo's other locations in Queens.
Staff set up exam rooms on the clinic's second floor — usually used for offices — and got the lights turned on with a generator supplied by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.
The clinic saw patients like a longtime resident known as Miss Judy, whose home down the block from Fairway was flooded. She came in with high blood pressure and doctors stabilized her so she could be rushed to New York Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, said Khadijah James, who does community outreach at the Addabbo clinic.
"Her blood pressure was off the charts... She probably would have suffered a stroke," James said.
Kraushar, who's become known in Red Hook as "Medical Matt," moved his outreach operation to a back room in the Addabbo Clinic. On Thursday, he was trying to figure out how to transition his on-the-fly medical intervention into an operation that can be sustained until the power is restored. Kraushar was working to recruit doctors from the flooded NYU Hospital as well as local EMTs.
"We just need a system in place to check on people who are living in conditions that are very unsafe," Kraushar said.
He said he's called every city agency and medical organization he can think of for help, but the response has been disappointing.
"I've called the Mayor's Office, the Department of Health, the head of every major hospital — everyone says we'll get back to you with a plan, and we've gotten nothing," Matt said. "It's insane that Occupy Wall Street, a community center [Red Hook Initiative] and a med student are taking care of this."