PORT-AU-PRINCE – No one knew her name. She was found lying on the ground of a makeshift hospital, half-naked, visibly disoriented, eyes rolling, and pregnant.
What unfolded next would prove to be a testament to why a team of mostly Haitian-Americans and American doctors, nurses, paramedics, and volunteers scrambled to get to Haiti’s earthquake ravaged Port-au-Prince capital sooner than planned.
“Her tongue was bitten,” said Dr. Kameelah Phillips, who spotted the woman and immediately began accessing her conditions. The bite marks indicated that the woman had experienced a recent seizure. “She was combative because she was so disoriented”
With Dr.Phillips at the helm, a crew of doctors and nurses rushed to aid the woman who had begun having another seizure. The patient’s airway needed to be cleared and a dose of ativan – a drug that stops seizures – needed to be administered.
“We had no ativan,” Dr. Phillips said. “A nurse literally pull some from her personal stash.”
While there are more than 100,000 survivors with injuries, these doctors are trying to help one victim at a time.
The 32-member team, which consists of 28 doctors and nurses including Dr. Phillips, represents the New York NOAH chapter, a Washington-based organization that advocates for better US policy toward Haiti.
The earthquake devastated all but a few hospitals in the capital, hence the need for medical centers and additional medical help to care for the wounded.
Doctors from NOAH’s New York chapter planned a visit to the country as part of a scheduled winter mission in Fort Liberte in the northern part of Haiti. But with the emergency created by the earthquake, the group decided to set up camp in the capital instead. They plan to spend at least six weeks here and rotate volunteers from various New York City hospitals.
For now, the health care professionals practice their skills at a makeshift hospital in Tabarre near the American Embassy. They took over an abandoned children amusement park where they’ve set up a pharmacy, operating room, and triage center. Red Coleman tents serve as their bedrooms. While they are able to perform most surgeries, the more acute and complicated cases are referred to a state of the art Israeli field hospital that was set up a few days ago.
But waiting for patients is only part of the game. The doctors fan out everyday across the city, looking for the injured who haven’t seen a doctor since they suffered wounds during the earthquake. On Sunday morning, three cars full of doctors, nurses and translators drove through downtown Port-au-Prince, armed with antibiotics, gauzes, stretch dressing, and pain medicine like Tylenol and Motrin, said Dr. Janice Desir, a resident in internal medicine/pediatrics at SUNY Stonybrook in Long Island.
They treated scores of patients suffering from various wounds and broken limbs, the most common injuries people suffered during the tremors.
As they snaked through the maze of people living in tents in downtown, the doctors are alerted that a 17-year old girl was badly burned on her buttocks after she landed on a coal stove during the tremors.
Two doctors removed a red plastic bowl that was covering the second degree burns to find it indigo blue.
It wasn’t necessarily infected, the blue substance was detergent that some people believe would help heal the wounds. According to the doctors, people have used tobacco leaves, toothpaste and charcoal to heal the wounds. The doctors spread the word that these items should not be used to heal wounds.
“I’m not sure where they got this from, but obviously it’s doesn’t work,” said Andy Graham, a paramedic, firefighter from Seattle, who joined the group in Miami.
As her burn was being cleaned, the young lady’s cries pierced the bustle around the crowded tents. Her mother cried in solidarity as if sharing the pain vicariously
“That’s why we have to come to them. This young lady wouldn’t be able to get into a car,” said Dr. Phillips, who is in her last year of her residency at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan. “That was awful. She had second and third degree burns, which are the most painful burns. In NY we put people to sleep to do what we just did to her. It was hurting my heart to hear her scream.”
But according to the doctors, the biggest challenge is the race to save people who otherwise might die from infection unless they are treated immediately. The Haitian government has been overwhelmed by the calamity and officials are unable to carry out the tasks and are counting on volunteer groups to help.
“This was total devastation,” said Dr. Henry Paul, president of NOAH NY, a kidney specialist who was born in Port-au-Prince and raised in Chicago. “I don’t know how they’re going to rebuild.”