Hundreds Visit Medical Tents Seeking Care for Cold Feet and Worse

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Marshall Anderson, park ranger and paramedic, arrived at his first aid tent northeast of the Washington Monument at 5:30 a.m. yesterday. His first patient arrived at 5:31.

"She walked in right behind me," he said at midmorning, by which time he and his colleagues had seen 17 people.

The first patient, a Maryland woman in her 30s on dialysis, "was on a shoebox full of medications," Anderson recalled. "She was cold, and she just wasn't feeling well."

His advice after a quick assessment: Go home and watch the inauguration on television.

It's impossible to know how many people wished at some point yesterday that they had heard or taken the same advice. What's clear is that the cold -- intermittently piercing and dangerous, sun-diluted and benign -- was the cause of most of yesterday's medical problems.

In most cases it was nothing more than painful extremities that brought hundreds of people to the 56 tents and warming stations set up for the occasion. In some cases, the cold triggered chronic illnesses, such as asthma. In others, it exacerbated dehydration and hunger from long waits.

"We've seen a lot of people who didn't really dress for the weather," said Anderson, 28, who wore a wool cap pulled down snugly and had a pair of orange-handled bandage scissors tucked in a strap around his torso like a ceremonial dagger.

He was one of several dozen National Park Service rangers brought in from distant sites (in his case, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona). Although all park rangers are trained in emergency medical care, those in Western parks are especially experienced, a spokesman said, because they often provide the only ambulance service for large geographic areas.

The park service ran 16 medical tents on the Mall. In addition to paramedics, each tent had a doctor and two nurses, most provided by the U.S. Public Health Service and other federal health agencies. For many, yesterday was a big change from their day jobs.

At Tent No. 6, near the World War II Memorial, among the people treating a 73-year-old woman with asthma worsened by the cold was Tammie Brent, a nurse with the Food and Drug Administration whose usual task is reviewing the pregnancy and lactation sections of drug labels.

A lieutenant commander in the Public Health Service's commissioned corps, she and her fellow officers "are all required to keep our clinical skills current," she said.

The tents were busier the closer they were to the Capitol end of the Mall. In one across from the National Museum of American History, eight people huddled in a circle of folding chairs, wrapped in the gray felted blankets sometimes seen on homeless people. One in the circle was Martha Bronitsky, a 48-year-old lawyer from the San Francisco Bay area.

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