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Baby Boom Adds Life to Rebirth of New Orleans

Surge in Katrina babies is especially noticeable with fewer hospitals open. Medical staff and parents see the children as signs of hope.

August 14, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — When Kim and Brian Sevin were temporarily displaced to Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was little else to do but sit around, watch the news and find comfort in each other's arms.

That's when baby Cameron Casey was conceived.

"She is a Katrina evacuation baby," said Kim Sevin, 35, of the infant who was born a little prematurely on May 29, exactly nine months after the storm. "It was absolutely a blessing, but it was not planned, not expected."

The Sevins joined the ranks of hundreds of other New Orleans couples who got pregnant shortly after Katrina, and are now giving birth to so many newborns, compared with this same period last year, that many medical professionals believe the trend signals a local baby boom.

According to Dr. Alfred Robichaux III, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Ochsner Health System, there were 33 births per 1,000 women in New Orleans last year, based on a total population figure of 484,674. This year, with the number of city residents down by more than half, the number of births is on track to be 41 per 1,000 women.

Although many of the pregnancies were not planned, some parents made a conscious decision to conceive as a way to foster hope for the future in the wake of Katrina's wrath, medical professionals and parents of newborns said.

"It pushed people toward reevaluating what was important -- family, connections with people and moving forward," said Dr. Janet Ross, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Uptown neighborhood's Touro Infirmary, where delivery statistics nine to 12 months after Katrina are keeping pace with pre-storm deliveries, despite the city's significantly smaller population.

"I think the folks that have come back are optimists," said Dr. Ellen R. Kruger, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Ochsner Health System, where Sevin gave birth. "They are helping to rebuild the city from the ground up, in some ways."

Doctors said that the relatively greater number of births was more noticeable in a city with only four of the 11 hospitals that deliver babies open.

Individual doctors are shouldering a greater workload. And there has been an influx to the city of workers from other parts of the United States, and from Mexico, who have had their babies in New Orleans.

"Anecdotally ... the sense of being close to your partner during this critical time may have been critical to the increase in having more babies," said Dr. Gabriella Pridjian, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Tulane-Lakeside Hospital, which has seen an almost 25% increase in deliveries in the nine to 12 months following Katrina.

In July, Ochsner was inundated with newborns, with 168 deliveries -- a 100% increase over July 2005.

Doctors there said the figures were expected to remain high through August, and in order to cope with the soaring number of newborns, Ochsner has expanded its labor and delivery unit, taking over space from its cardiology department. Ten physicians have been added to the hospital's obstetrical staff, according to Robichaux.

"As far as Ochsner is concerned, it's a baby boom," said Kruger, who shortly after the hurricane noticed that a lot of patients were trying to get off the pill and onto prenatal vitamins; many more were inquiring about the use of fertility drugs.

Many parents of so-called Katrina babies said their newborns were helping to bring light into the darkness of trying times.

"It's a blessing after everything we've been through," said Betty Garcia, who spoke from her hospital bed at Ochsner after the July 31 birth of son Ervin David Garcia Jr.

"It's the calm after the storm. It brings peace to our lives and to our family, and joy."

"It's brought my family and friends much closer together," said Kelly Milligan, 22, whose son, Leren Jr., arrived Tuesday at Touro Infirmary.

Milligan, a nurse at another area hospital, said that at least eight of her co-workers, all stationed on the same floor, had recently given birth or were about to. "It seems that people everywhere are popping up pregnant."

Like many other new parents, Milligan expressed anxiety about raising her child in a city battling to overcome a myriad of problems that Katrina exacerbated, including shoddy infrastructure, spiraling crime, lack of childcare centers and poor schools. "It's scary, because there is still so much going on," said Milligan, whose home near the city's Lakeview neighborhood was inundated in 6 feet of water after Katrina hit.

Garcia said the potential of another severe hurricane made her more edgy, because of her new infant. "We will need to be more cautious now," she said. "We are going to be more prepared now. We will need to evacuate."

Ross, the Touro physician, said she had noticed higher incidents of depression among pregnant patients, which is "a red flag for looking out for post-partum depression."

Pridjian, from Tulane-Lakeside, said the Metairie hospital was screening new and expectant mothers with respect to their emotional health and living conditions, and where necessary, social services was getting involved to assist.

Despite the challenges of living in New Orleans these days, the Sevins have decided to remain here, and they viewed the birth of their youngest child as a positive contribution to the city's revival. "I am nervous. There's a lot of uproar, a lot of instability and uncertainty," said Kim Sevin. "But I feel the city will come back. And what better way to help it than by contributing to the population?"

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