Karam turns the 'dysfunction' of the EKL building into strength.
A few years back, a prospective resident for the LSU Internal Medicine Residency in Baton Rouge was a bit perplexed when he pulled up to Earl K. Long Medical Center and saw what he thought were two sizable parking garages.
Turned out those were two of the hospital's main wings. So when the student sat down with LSU-IMR-BR Director Dr. George Karam, he told him he was a bit underwhelmed at the facility's appearance.
At least that prospective student showed up.
Karam recalls another resident from Texas who drove to EKL for a morning interview, never got out of his car and called when he was halfway back home to thank Karam for the invitation.
“He told me he didn't think he could learn what he needed to here,” Karam says with a smile.
What those two never got the chance to experience was the pulse of the program Karam has shepherded since 1990 into one of the shining stars in the LSU School of Medicine.
No, EKL isn't the most aesthetically pleasing medical facility for students and residents. Karam says he lovingly tells doctors around the country the program operates in two tin cans and a double-wide trailer.
Opened in 1968, the facility has slowly deteriorated as physicians there served poor and uninsured patients on the north edge of Baton Rouge.
In March 2010, the state announced that it would shut the hospital down and move the medical school to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in late 2013.
Now the drab gray building that rises off of Airline Highway is headed toward an unsure future.
Look behind the curtain, though, and there's important teaching and learning in every nook and cranny, and perhaps most importantly, there's an emphasis on excellent patient care.
“You look at our hospital, and at times it's easy to judge something based on appearance,” says Dr. Dean Lauret, an associate program director for LSU-IMR-BR. “It's 180 degrees opposite of that and a lot of that is because of the program Dr. Karam has established here.”
In fact, Karam has taken a seemingly insurmountable negative and transformed it into something positive.
When he arrived to help relaunch the residency program, EKL was already starting to show her age. So Karam shifted the focus to what he perceived as a strong building block.
“The dysfunction of the building is probably one of the biggest strengths,” Karam says. “We don't have the equipment or resources to spend a lot of time doing the things that they do in some of the fancy new buildings.
“So instead, the focus is to spend a lot of time on the educational aspect and teach students and residents the best way to provide compassionate care for their patients. A culture has evolved from that, and that culture has led to the reason we've done as well as we have here.”
As that evolution has occurred, a new cadre of LSU-trained doctors in internal medicine has hit the workforce.
They weren't trained in the shiniest buildings or with the newest equipment, but those doctors have never strayed too far away—physically or emotionally—from their roots and Karam. The website for the LSU-IMR-BR estimates that 76% of the program's graduates have stayed in Louisiana, a large portion of those in the Capital Region.
That's led to long-term relationships.
“When it was decided that the hospital was closing, everybody wanted to know what's happening, and especially what George was going to do,” says Dr. Angie Johnson, another associate program director. “We've had a lot of former doctors call to see if we're doing anything formal so they can come back and celebrate the things we've done here through the years. So much of that is George and the environment he's created here.”
Despite the major transition looming, there is no need for a farewell tour for Karam, who turned 60 on Aug. 14. He intends to move with the program to the new facility and keep teaching as long as LSU wants him.
That's healthy for the program, Lauret says.
“I know the first question I had when I was interviewing with George was, 'How long are you going to be here?' ” Lauret says. “He's not the only reason people come here, but he's a big part of the attraction.”
Karam will still be around, and so will the program he loves, albeit in a whole new package.
And Karam doesn't mind admitting that he'll miss the place where its culture grew, prospered and established roots.
What does dismay him is the fact that while the medical school will move, most of the other hospital employees—“people who make this place what it is”—will have to apply for new jobs at OLOL and other hospitals.
Those feelings of apprehensiveness aren't unique to Karam. Like many current students and doctors in the program, third-year resident Dr. Casey Carlisle has spent an awful lot of time at EKL.
“I have to say, I have a love for Earl K. Long and I'm sad that it won't be there anymore,” Carlisle said. “I'm hoping that the enthusiasm and the drive that we have as a program are maintained when we move to OLOL."
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