Feature

Penelope Dralle, PhD, never expected to find herself on the unemployment line, filing for benefits.

A former president of the Louisiana Psychological Association, Dralle enjoyed a successful career as a psychologist, first joining the Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center faculty in New Orleans as a research associate in 1968, and eventually earning tenure, teaching and working as an associate professor.

After she and her husband came back to the city following Hurricane Katrina, Dralle provided crises counseling and support for police officers at two districts, worked with families of police officers, firefighters and city employees living on cruise ships moored along the Mississippi and commuted to Baton Rouge to teach medical students in borrowed classroom space.

But on Nov. 29, she got an e-mail from the school's administration, telling her she was furloughed from her post with the School of Medicine's psychiatry department, and would no longer be paid as of Dec. 1. She was told not to come to work, but couldn't get clarification from administrators about whether being furloughed meant she couldn't earn outside income without jeopardizing her prospects of being rehired.

Living without a steady paycheck, and with her husband also facing a loss of income from his job teaching organizational consulting at local colleges, Dralle turned to the state for support. It was a bitter experience for someone who had always held a job, from the time she was a teenager working as a cashier at the five-and-dime in her hometown of Kosciusko, Miss., to her years earning a doctorate.

"Being in the unemployment line? It felt pretty bad, actually. I don't think it's any different from anybody standing there," says Dralle, who is appealing her furlough to the school's administration.

She wasn't the only academic psychologist to find herself without a job in the New Orleans area late last year, as a wave of post-Katrina furloughs and terminations disrupted and ended careers at local medical schools.

Besides medical schools, several colleges and universities in the New Orleans area with psychology departments reported cuts in staffing. For several schools, reductions came in the number of adjunct professors.

At Tulane University, only two adjunct professors will teach this spring, compared with six last fall before Katrina, says Janet Ruscher, PhD, professor and chair of the psychology department.

At Xavier University of Louisiana, an assistant professor and an associate professor were let go, out of a full-time pre-Katrina psychology department staff of seven. Additionally, three part-time instructors were not hired back, says department chair Lisa J. Schulte, PhD.

Furloughs at LSU

Jill Hayes Hammer, PhD, was an associate professor and director of internship training at LSU's Health Sciences Center. Now 37, she joined the faculty in 1998.

Before Katrina, Hammer supervised the training of five psychology interns. After Katrina struck, three interns moved to programs in different states, while the training focus for the remaining two shifted to providing care to police officers, firefighters, paramedics, their families and any children still living in the city.

Like Dralle, she also got an e-mailed furlough notice. Months before, she heard talk of possible furloughs, but said none of her colleagues expected the news. Half of the 10 psychologists working for the department of psychiatry were furloughed.

Compared with other departments, she believes the furloughs hit the psychiatry department disproportionately hard.

"It felt like somebody had punched me in the stomach and taken the wind out of me," she says. "We really all enjoyed what we did at LSU, and had a very fraternal relationship with each other. Now, that's completely gone."

Hammer moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., in early January to teach two spring semester courses at Arizona State University. Her husband, Byron Hammer, MD, a child psychiatrist with Jefferson Parish, La., has kept his job, and is staying at their house in New Orleans, which suffered roof and water damage.

Recalling how much she enjoyed working for the program and the people, music and culture of New Orleans, Hammer wants to be rehired.

"I'm hoping to move back," she says.

The LSU furloughs were a financial necessity caused by the twin hits of hurricane damage and the drying up of patient-care revenue that used to pay salaries, says university spokeswoman Leslie Capo. At LSU's medical school, 186 faculty were either furloughed, terminated or retired, meaning nearly 15 percent of faculty employed prior to Katrina no longer work there. For faculty and staff, the overall work force shrank 29 percent following Katrina, Capo says.

The school operated a network of 10 hospitals and teaching programs serving New Orleans area residents. With the city still at just a quarter of its pre-Katrina population, the patients aren't there anymore, says Capo, adding that fewer patients means less revenue.

"We lost this major source of revenue, and you can't spend money when it's no longer there," she says.

Larry Hollier, acting chancellor of LSU Health Sciences Center, says that five of the system's 10 teaching hospitals will remain closed for an extended period of time because of storm damage, with two more operating at reduced status.

Cuts at Tulane

Some psychologists at Tulane University also lost their jobs.

Jorge Daruna, PhD, had worked at Tulane since 1982, earning tenure in 1989. Just months before Katrina struck, he was named a full professor in child psychiatry.

But on Dec. 9, he learned he was being terminated from the faculty of the psychiatry and neurology department when his supervisor called him on his cell phone.

"I was hurt, and felt that all the years there were…not particularly of any kind of value. It's just not a good feeling," he says.

Daruna, who says that 15 out of 22 psychologists working in his department were terminated, thinks that Tulane's cuts hit psychologists disproportionately hard, compared with reductions in other departments.

Following termination, Daruna gets paid a part of his salary for a year through a severance package from the school, and his wife is still a communications professor at Tulane. But at age 57, he feels too young to retire. Still, he says he needs a job, and will move if necessary.

"A lot of places are not looking for people in their 50s to start a program," he says.

The cuts at Tulane are tied to the fact that the school closed down for a semester, suffered $150 million in physical damages and lost a source of revenue from patients at its hospital, says Yvette Jones, the university's chief operating officer and senior vice president for external affairs.

At Tulane's School of Medicine, 132 faculty members out of 550 were separated, Jones says.

"We could no longer maintain the payroll for those people," she explains.

Psychologists in short supply

Even for psychologists who haven't lost their jobs, the aftermath of Katrina has brought continued upheaval in their personal and professional lives.

Michelle Hamilton, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who directed the clinical training program at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in downtown New Orleans. When the flood came, water inundated the hospital's basement and subbasement. The hospital's patients and staff were evacuated by the VA in the days after Katrina struck.

Water filled Hamilton's office to the ceiling, destroying years of paper records.

Before Katrina, Hamilton belonged to a staff of 14 psychologists at the hospital. Among her duties was overseeing the training program for three interns. Two relocated to different programs, and one is sitting the year out.

Recruiting for the internship is on hold, but Hamilton got permission for one intern to come back in August.

Now, she and another psychologist are the only two left from the staff doing clinical work in the New Orleans area, with three more psychologists working in mobile clinics outside of the city, and the rest scattered to VA centers from New York to Tennessee.

Psychologists are still badly needed in the New Orleans area, says Hamilton. The VA program was widely recognized for its work with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she says. Seeing the death, destruction and flooding inflicted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused many of those veterans to start having more flashbacks, other PTSD symptoms and problems with anger, Hamilton says.

The medical center adapted to the damage, opening a temporary facility nearby, and setting up primary-care clinics in tents and trailers pitched in suburban shopping plaza parking lots, she says.

Since Katrina, Hamilton has conducted group therapy for veterans with PTSD in a Baptist church and a Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States hall, and helped reorganize the internship program in a cell-phone conference call she ran sitting on a curb of a mobile clinic set up in a Wal-Mart parking lot in the small town of La Place, La.

"It was a good experience in some ways," she says. "It just shows you can help people anywhere."

From what she understands, the long-term future of the VA hospital is undecided.

"I think everybody is hoping that at some point we'll have a semblance of what we had before," she says.