If you have a chance to see Big Charity in theaters, run, don’t walk. I saw it on Wednesday at the Prytania Theater, and I can’t stop thinking about it. The story of the death of Charity Hospital in New Orleans, it is a beautiful piece of film-making and an absolutely heartbreaking tale of the triumph of political corruption over human compassion.
Charity Hospital was founded in 1736 as a hospital for the poor, and until August 2005 – right after Hurricane Katrina hit – it was the oldest continuously running public hospital in the country. The film showcases the heroism of Charity’s staff in the days after the hurricane when the hospital was underwater, abandoned by the federal government, and responsible for over 100 patients in critical condition. Thanks to herculean efforts by the National Guard, Charity was ready to start admitting patients again only a week after the storm hit – but in a shocking move, the federal government condemned the building and shuttered it’s doors. The FEMA money that could have been used to save Charity was instead redirected to LSU’s plan for a new University Medical Center.
The politics surrounding this move are shady at best. But the consequences of the political maneuvering were stark and in many cases, fatal. Doctors who could have been operating out of a fully-functional hospital were instead relegated to makeshift tents in the Lord & Taylor department store. Mental health patients who could no longer be deposited at Charity were instead abandoned to the streets, and often ended up in jail. The poor, indigent population of New Orleans was left with nowhere to go when they became sick, and that remains true to this day. When Charity closed, the state of Louisiana was left with only one public hospital.
An LSU administrator was asked why the new hospital didn’t adopt the name “Charity,” and he responded that many people find the word offensive. The idea that a word describing help given to those in need could be considered objectionable is something everyone in this country should find deeply troubling. It is mainly playing at film festivals at the moment, but if you can, go see this movie. Check http://bigcharityfilm.com/ for more information.