After the Headlines Fade, Need Remains

 My best friend and former college roommate once declared that she hated reading newspapers. Each time she picked one up she would read something that would leave her upset for hours. Now I’m a newspaper junkie who really can’t start the day without the morning paper, so I thought her reaction rather extreme. However, given the state of the world this year, newspapers are certainly not the place to look if you want to avoid upsetting news.

Starting off with the New Year’s Asian tsunami and winding up with October’s earthquake on the Pakistan/India border, this has been one tough year. However, the disaster that got the most press coverage was, of course, the one closest to home: Hurricane Katrina. Not only was it one of the largest natural disasters in our nation’s history, but it exposed the uncomfortable fact that our superpower status and wealth could not alone insulate us from the type of misfortune and need we were used to seeing in poor countries on the other side of the globe.

In this month’s guest editorial (“Helping Our Own” on page 12), Theresa Shumard writes that the day she found out Hurricane Katrina was about to hit the Gulf Coast was one she will never forget. I hope that is true for all of us. Too often, once the headlines disappear, we never give the events they reported a second thought … or a second donation for that matter.

This is unfortunate, because often it is only later, once the initial and immediate needs for food, water, and shelter have passed, that disaster victims have the opportunity to review their situation and see what they need to get back on their feet. However, by then, the giving impulse has usually dried up or moved on to another disaster.

“The real need is now,” Jerome A. Barrett, executive director of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) told me. His organization is still collecting both equipment for people with sleep disorders and monetary donations for sleep therapy centers damaged by Katrina. For these centers, the process of figuring out when, and even if, their facilities will be able to reopen takes time. Insurance assessments must be made and, for many, critical decisions are out of their hands and must come from the owners of the hospitals or buildings that housed their laboratories.

Barrett estimated that the AASM would eventually be distributing around $100,000 to around 40 facilities, which works out to be about $2,500 per facility. Will this be enough? Only time will tell.

For patients, the story is similar. Thanks to generous equipment donations and the temporary waiving of prescription and health care professional licensure requirements in many areas affected by the storm, those who had lost their sleep therapy equipment could, in many cases, get new devices for free soon after the disaster. But for others, the process took longer.

Dave Jackson, national coordinator for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Awake in America’s Operation Restore CPAP, told me that he got a flood of sleep therapy equipment donations in the first few days following the hurricane, but it was not until last month that he heard from the Red Cross about some people who still needed equipment to get back on their sleep therapy regimens.

“They are just now starting to get into the human needs,” he said.

There is no question that the sleep community has been incredibly generous, both to its own and to national relief organizations, such as the Red Cross, but as the headlines fade, we must not assume that the need fades as well. All of the major sleep community relief groups I spoke with planned to take donations at least through the end of the year. If you have not yet given to one of them, consider doing so now, and if you have already given, consider doing so again.

Lena Kauffman, Editor
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