New Orleans, wonderland of deep-fried delights and butter-slathered delicacies that it is, has been slimming down. As recently as 2000, it was the fifth most overweight city in America, according to the American Obesity Association. But this year, the city that loves to eat is only the 22nd most overweight municipality.

Yet, judging from the travails of some New Orleans ambulance drivers, the race toward svelteness is not moving fast enough. They have struggled to wrestle 800-pound patients onto narrow stretchers and though narrower doorways. American Medical Response, a major ambulance operator in the southeast, has outfitted its vehicles with reinforced ramps and special winches to hoist obese patients.

But it wasn't enough.

Their solution? An extra-wide stretcher flexible enough to pinch through little doors.

The company has spent $5,000 for the stretcher, manufactured by the Stryker firm, which can accommodate a patient weighing as much as 1,600 pounds. The stretcher has all the bells and whistles: lap-belt extensions and additional handles for easier lifting.

The investment is a relief to the company's drivers, who have sometimes had to get creative to move obese patients. Once, their colleagues in Jackson, Miss., had to marshal a city bus to transport a patient because it was the only vehicle available with a lift that could carry the woman.

"In the past, it was very difficult and somewhat unsafe for the crew and patient," said paramedic Earl Winkles. "Even if it didn't feel unsafe, sometimes the dignity factor wasn't there."

-- Manuel Roig-Franzia

A New Orleans ambulance company recently began using flexible, extra-wide stretchers to transport obese patients to the hospital.