NEW ORLEANS -- Rachel Kingston walked past a pair of growling white Bengal tigers, ducked into a plastic tent and slipped into a dental exam chair. Her hand gingerly cupping her cheek, Kingston described to the dentist how her tooth had been aching since Hurricane Katrina.
Steps away, scores of other local residents lined up in front of a dental X-ray machine while a bear cub slept in a nearby tree. Down the road, next to a rhinoceros playfully digging in the dirt, women in a temporary exam room placed their heels into medical stirrups for Pap smears.
The thousands of people who gathered last week at the Audubon Zoo were not here to see the wildlife but to obtain medical care. The 58-acre zoo, about five miles southwest of the French Quarter, was the only site in New Orleans large enough to accommodate the weeklong free clinic.
At least 500 doctors, nurses and other medical professionals volunteered to staff the clinic, a temporary measure to help address the medical care crisis that followed hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Seven of the city's 16 hospitals are closed; scores of medical and dental offices were destroyed. Thousands of doctors, with no place to practice and their homes destroyed, have, like so many others, left the area.
Some volunteers came from the New Orleans region; others traveled from across the country, including dentists from California, optometrists from Kansas and obstetricians from Delaware.
The clinic, which opened Monday, was visited by nearly 5,000 people by the end of Thursday, said Stan Brock, founder and director of the nonprofit Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps.
Word of the free clinic quickly spread throughout the region, and families arrived from as far as Mississippi and Texas.
Three months before Katrina, Kingston, a 21-year-old single mother and blackjack dealer at Harrah's Casino in New Orleans, went to her dentist for a checkup.
She had two cavities that needed to be filled. "I put it off because my teeth didn't hurt, and I thought, 'Hey, I've got insurance. I'll deal with it later,'" said Kingston, who is studying to be a nurse. "Then, the storm hit. I lost my house. My mother lost hers."
Kingston also lost her casino job and her insurance.
The toothaches set in around Christmas. By New Year's Eve, an abscess had formed, with the right side of her face swelling.
Now, two teeth had decayed so badly that the dentists at the zoo told her they had to be extracted. A third tooth needed a root canal.
It wasn't just her health that was failing. Her mother's supply of insulin for her diabetes was nearly depleted. And the breathing of her daughter, Alirian, was labored - Kingston worried her 2-year-old was developing asthma.
But they couldn't find their doctors. Her dentist's office number was disconnected. When she drove by his office, the building had simply disappeared.
P.J. Huffstutter writes Los Angeles Times.