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May 25 2010

Helping in Haiti: One physician’s journey

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Image for Helping in Haiti: One physician’s journey When a disaster of the magnitude of January's catastrophic earthquake in Haiti strikes, for most physicians the instinctive reaction is to think, "How can I help?" For me, the answer came just four days after the quake hit, when I received a telephone call from the medical director of Double Harvest, a nonprofit about 10 miles outside of Port-au-Prince.

The medical director, who I knew from a 2009 volunteer trip providing anesthesia services at the nonprofit's small hospital, told me she had assembled a surgical team to treat injuries but as yet had no anesthesia lined up. She wanted to know if I was available to come down.

In less than 24 hours, and with the cooperation of many people in my practice group, Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants in Charlotte, my wife Kim and I pulled together a team that included me, two CRNAs and a RN who is a Haitian native. (Side note: During our trip this RN made several attempts to contact her parents, who were living on the island at the time of the disaster, without success. She carried out her duties professionally during what must have been an extremely emotional time for her. She was never able to reach them and it is assumed they perished in the quake.)

Our team arrived in Santo Domingo on Sunday, where U.S. Army pilots and airmen were available to airlift us to Port-au-Prince. They placed us at the front door of the clinic on Monday morning.

Hundreds of injured Haitians, many of whom had been at the clinic for several days, awaited us. Most of the injuries were crushed limbs and the most common operation performed was amputation. Since they had gone virtually without treatment for many days, all open injuries were seriously infected.

Before the earthquake, surgical teams arrived three or four times a year for a week at a time and the Double Harvest facility treated perhaps a dozen patients a day. Since the quake it has been operating continuously and handling up to 80 cases a day in its two operating rooms. To accommodate the burgeoning demand, the resourceful staff at Double Harvest, which teaches farming and irrigation techniques and operates a school for local children in addition to other programs, converted a schoolhouse into a makeshift recovery room, with bare mattresses serving as recovery beds.

The van Wingerden family, whose patriarch Aart van Wingerden founded Double Harvest in 1979, worked around the clock to keep us in materials, supplies, gasoline and food by making daily trips to the Dominican Republic. They were able to repair leaks in our anesthesia machines and even fix a sterilizer that they had never before laid eyes on.

To be sure, the experience was emotionally and physically demanding. Long days, little sleep, minimal contact with family back home, all while treating devastating injuries against a backdrop of death. The experience left each of us with a need for healing ourselves.

But the impression that is the strongest from my trip is of the incredible strength and beauty of the Haitian people. Most patients had lost a limb and would return to a society where disabilities are not well accepted. Most had lost multiple family members to the earthquake and no doubt had endured horrific experiences prior to their arrival at the clinic. Yet, in eight days I never heard one complaint or cry. That incredible aspect of my trip to Haiti will last longer than any other. While there with these people, I felt close to God.

Most physicians, as well as most other health care professionals, have been instilled with a sense of service and responsibility. Financial and practice pressures, as well as our frequent obligation to provide care without compensation, can understandably distract us from and even obscure our desires to help people in distress.

But for me, the opportunity to give much needed care to a large number of injured and dying patients came as close to pure medical practice as I have ever experienced. There were no tests to order, MRIs to read, administrative rules to follow, and no thoughts of defensive medicine. We were faced with a steady stream of patients in need and we cared for them in good fashion, using the best judgment that experience had taught us. At the end of each day I felt a sense of true accomplishment and a sense that I had come close to honoring the wonderful gift of my medical education.

It's not possible for every physician to serve in the field providing direct medical services. Not everyone has to. There are numerous ways to help, from donating supplies and equipment to writing a donation check to a worthy service organization. I encourage you to find a way to help, in Haiti or anywhere patients are in medical need.

 Comments on this article:

Thank you for what you and your team did for those of us who could not get there to help. My heart was overwhelmed from reading your compassionate words. My heart goes out to the many here and in Haiti that lost so many loved ones. I have been a part of a team to Jerome, Haiti in 2006. I will never forget the many blessings received and can’t wait to go back.

By Debbie Rutledge-Holt, PA-C on May 27, 2010 at 10:27am

Thanks so much for your heartwarming and heartfelt words; your compassion and sincerity are apparent.  I only wish and hope that I can somehow serve these people in some way in the future- I as certain that their needs will continue for many years to come.

By David Hedgecock- NC Medical Board on May 30, 2010 at 10:43pm
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