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When choosing a specialty to pursue as a medical student, I
selected internal medicine because of the diverse problems I would
see and the interaction I would have with a variety of people.
Indeed, I experience this each day as a practicing internist in
North Carolina, where I also work weekly at a wound care center.
Because of my background and interests, I had considered medical
mission work in the past, and in January, I felt a strong desire to
help those in need when the earthquake devastated Haiti. My
training in wound care management seemed like it would be
especially beneficial to those injured there, so I contacted a
physician near my hometown who was organizing a medical mission to
Haiti. He had many mission trips to his credit in South and Central
America and Central Africa. He was well organized, and I readily
agreed to participate. A hospital, pharmacy, orthopedic clinic, and
school from our local area donated medication, DME, and other
supplies and money to support our trip. Our medical director
contacted other national and local charities that also made
Our group consisted of 34 people from varied backgrounds. Four
physicians - one internist, one pediatrician, one family medicine
doctor, one emergency room physician - and two physician assistants
were the providers. Accompanying us were three pharmacists and
several nurses and personnel who had experience in chronic care
facilities and health departments. Our supplies were shipped in the
planes that took us there. Several of us were fortunate enough to
fly on private planes donated by two local businessmen, and we
arrived in Port-au-Prince on February 20 to set up our clinic in an
abandoned school house. Others flew commercial to Santo Domingo and
traveled eight hours by bus through the mountains to reach our
clinic on February 21.
The facility had been used by the international branch of our
medical director's church, and the accommodations were much better
than anyone in our group had expected. We actually had running
(cold) water, filtered water to drink, and partly working toilet
and shower facilities. (This was far better than the situation for
our patients, who shared bath water and thereby transmitted some
diseases among each other.) We slept on cots inside the school,
which had been inspected by contractors and deemed safe. However,
our Haitian translators and other locals slept outside on the
ground. They would not sleep inside, and their reasoning was more
evident when tremors shook the building two nights in a row - once
tossing me up on the cot. The first day after our arrival, we
toured the area outside of our camp. The devastation was massive
and difficult to comprehend. Chickens, pigs, goats, and dogs roamed
the neighborhood. Still, many children were playing in the streets,
and in one field, some youths had organized a soccer game.
While I speak some French, the Creole language was somewhat
different, though I was able to learn several phrases to
communicate on my own. However, all of the instructions and
pharmaceuticals given there were provided with clear instructions
from one of the several translators with us. Three of our
translators were medical students from Haiti. Unfortunately, they
now have no medical school in which to finish their training. One
student, Gail, stated that most of the physicians who taught at the
school had died in the quake. She felt great concern for the fate
of her people after those of us providing care left.
Contrary to my anticipation, I provided very little wound care
while in Haiti, as our group included a wound care nurse who works
for a home health agency. My time was spent treating hypertension,
diabetes, splinting fractures, and treating Malaria, among other
infections. Most everyone there was suffering post traumatic stress
from the quake, and many experienced stomach aches, headaches, and
sleeplessness. When I asked patients what they had been eating,
some would not tell me. However, they did state that their drinking
water just after the quake was not always safe or treated and very
dirty. Many people had diarrhea, and others could not access
clinics to fill their regular medications.
We spent a day at a tent city, and there one of our translators
found alive his brother whom he had not seen since the quake.
During this day, our group treated a range of patients and
problems. Our pediatrician cared for a one-day old baby with an
infected umbilical cord. One infant had been abandoned, and one of
our nurses instructed a surrogate caregiver on how to feed and care
for the child. My colleagues and I treated an adolescent who had
not received care for a foot wound and developed osteomyelitis. We
discussed treatment options available and transferred her to a
hospital in town where, we later learned, she had an amputation of
her lower leg.
On another day, we went into a mountain region and provided care
to a large group of patients who had not received health care for a
long time. Throughout our journey, we met local survivors who
shared their stories with us. One man we met told of how his wife
was lying on the bed with their three children while he sat in a
chair nearby. The quake struck and within a few minutes, she was
dead, while the children and he had survived. Every day he goes
back to his "home" to honor her memory. Indeed, the strength of the
Haitians was astounding. People were sleeping on the ground and
used tents or tarps to cover their living areas. Many were
reclaiming the metal from the concrete that had been the roofs of
their houses to sell for recycling. At one house, the walls had
collapsed, likely due to poor mortar, and the blocks from these
fallen walls became a makeshift pen for the family live stock that
survived. One family slept at the still-standing metal gate to our
We toured downtown Port-au-Prince where the National Palace,
Legislative, and Justice buildings once stood. The military
presence was evident throughout to keep order. A missionary
traveling with us told of how bodies had lined those streets during
the few days after the quake - a month after the quake, however,
markets had replaced bodies. Vendors were now selling food,
trinkets, various hardware, and wooden poles to support tarps for
walls and roofs. Large trucks were traveling the streets
transporting water to the tent camps, which were too numerous to
count and too large to comprehend. Signs posted in the tent camps
reminded people to wash and use good hygiene.
The Haitian people expressed an unreal amount of appreciation
toward us, and I think everyone in our group had difficulty
leaving, knowing so much more work was left to be done (or not) by
others. I will never forget the experience, and not only because of
the help that we provided. It was extraordinary to witness how
people live, survive, and carry on in the face of abject poverty
and devastation in one of the poorest countries in the world - when
we are so blessed. One of the last acts of thanks was when a
translator stated that he would see us again - not in this life,
but in the life hereafter. To me, this powerful statement was the
epitome of their faith and gratitude.
Here are some pictures from this experience:
Check out more volunteer
March 2010 Issue of IMpact
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