|There were those who questioned whether New Orleans would ever fully recover from the horrific devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
The monster storm, which hammered the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, killed at least 1,400 of its residents and caused catastrophic damage to the city's infrastructure, including its medical facilities. Many feared the disaster was so severe that the city might never come all the way back from it.
UT Arlington alumnus Dr. Robert Lynch wasn't among them.
When Katrina struck, Lynch was director of the South Central Veterans Affairs Health Care Network, leading the Veterans Administration's second largest health care network, which covers all or part of eight states in the southern United States. The network serves a veteran population of 1.8 million and has an annual budget of over $2 billion. When Katrina inundated New Orleans, it caused catastrophic failure in the city's inadequate levee system and resulted in widespread flooding and destruction of thousands of homes and buildings. Lynch oversaw the evacuation of over 600 patients and employees from the VA hospital, which like most of the city's medical facilities suffered extensive damage.
"Nobody was prepared for a disaster of that magnitude," he said. "Nobody was prepared for the levees to fail or for the entire city to be evacuated. It took a lot of heroic efforts by a whole lot of people to get everyone out safely. The devastation was tremendous. It was a very chaotic time, but people rose to the challenge."
Damage to the VA hospital was so severe that it was decided not to reopen the facility for anything other than limited clinic operations. New Orleans' Charity Hospital likewise was inoperable and was deemed damaged beyond repair. The VA contracted with nearby Tulane Medical Center to provide hospital care for the area's veterans. Tulane had also been damaged by Katrina but was the first of the city's hospitals to reopen, in February 2006.
Compounding problems was Hurricane Rita, another massive storm, which made landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border on September 23, 2005 and caused catastrophic damage to the gulf regions of those states, including another of the VA hospitals of which Lynch was in charge. He spent much of his time in the months following the storms in Washington, D.C., testifying about the extent of the damage and seeking federal funding.
In November 2005, he was among those appearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs on Capitol Hill, along with Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson. In his opening remarks, Nicholson singled out Lynch for his work at the VA hospital during and after Katrina's devastation of New Orleans.
'...Dr. Lynch provided the leadership there," Nicholson said. "And I know at one period of time, he was up for 40 consecutive hours because I would go to our crisis response center in the building, and I went there at different random times throughout that period, and Bob Lynch was always on duty, moving people, planning. He just did a heroic job."
In August 2007, with the future of the New Orleans VA facility in doubt due to the extensive damage, Lynch accepted an offer to become chief executive officer of Tulane University Hospital & Clinic, located near the VA hospital downtown.
New Orleans has made huge progress in coming back from the disaster, and under Lynch's leadership, Tulane Medical Center has played a key role. The hospital, in addition to training healthcare professionals, advancing the science of medicine and providing outstanding care to its patients, made healing the city and its residents one of its core commitments following Katrina.
"We have a lot of outstanding people doing incredible work," Lynch said. "The city needed hope following what happened, and that's one thing we've tried to provide."
While helping Tulane Medical Center and New Orleans come back from the devastation of Katrina has been the biggest challenge of his career, Lynch has spent three decades providing leadership and mentoring young doctors, preparing them to be difference-makers in the health care field. But while he has a long track record as a difference-maker himself, he had no idea growing up that health care would be the field in which he would make his mark.
Lynch was born in Worcester, Mass., and lived all over the East Coast and Midwest growing up because of his father's frequent work relocations. He went to high school in Mount Prospect, Ill., outside Chicago, and then enlisted in the Air Force at a time when the Vietnam War was raging overseas. It was during his four years in the Air Force that his future plans took a decisive turn.
"I never thought I would go to medical school," he says. "I grew up in the era of Sputnik and the space race, and figured I would go into engineering. But in the Air Force, I was trained as a med tech, and I realized that I could do this stuff and that I enjoyed it."
When Lynch left the Air Force, his family was living in Fort Worth. Armed