On January 12, a devastating earthquake rocked the Haitian capital of Port au Prince. Just eight days later, Guillermo Garcia, MD, an orthopedic surgeon, landed in the Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti. With him was Bart Hunt, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, and Brad Pollington, a surgical technician. Working with Mission of Hope, the three had traveled from St. Catherine Hospital, Garden City, KS, to help the injured when and where they could.
"Even that far from where the earthquake had struck, it was chaotic," said Bart. "It was an eight-hour drive to Port au Prince, and our ride was a truck loaded with supplies for an orphanage. Our driver told us what to expect on the ride."
That included being on the alert for looters. "Truck painted with a large red cross, but we kept a tarp over the supplies," said Brad. "At the border, there were more people leaving Haiti than going in. Many people appeared to be traumatized. We didn't really know for sure how we were going to find a place where we could be of service. But, we were going in the right direction."
The trio also didn't know what equipment and supplies would be available to them. They were able to bring some supplies with them, but airline luggage restrictions meant they had to be selective.
"We had to think about the possibility that we might need to operate in a relatively primitive way," said Guillermo. "We didn't know if there would be anesthesia or electricity, so we brought pain blockers and batteries."
The first destination for the convoy that carried Guillermo, Bart and Brad was the orphanage that was waiting for supplies. "The kids were very welcoming and, we found out, remarkably tough. During the second earthquake that happened a few days after the first, one of the kids was killed by a collapsed wall. There were no adults there at the time. The other children buried him."
In Port au Prince, the three found a place to stay in a safe area that had not been affected by the earthquakes. But, the daily commute to the hospital in Port au Prince took from 90 minutes to three hours. "We had a tent and a bunch of MREs (meals ready to eat) among our supplies," said Brad. "We decided to stay in the tent on the hospital grounds, and use the time that we could have spent commuting to help people."
Bart used his Eagle Scout skills to pitch the tent on the roof of the hospital. "If there were going to be big aftershocks, we were going to be on top of everything," he said.
When the trio first arrived at the hospital, there were hundreds of people, inside and outside, all seeking care. In the hospital, every possible square inch of space was being used. "There were men, women and children, with no privacy, all sharing their pain and suffering," said Guillermo.
The hospital was previously an ophthalmology hospital and was not well equipped to handle traumatic injuries. "There were two operating rooms, but no equipment. We picked one and set up what we had brought," said Guillermo. "Then, we started looking for surgical patients. People were using ladders and cots to bring the injured in - there were no stretchers or gurneys."
"Here in the U.S. we're usually rather isolated from death," Guillermo added. "We have routines to help us deal with it. But while we were in Haiti, life and death were constantly right there, right in front of us."
While the St. Catherine team was in Haiti, they helped treat the "second wave" of earthquake victims. "New injuries were occurring during recovery and relief efforts, and we saw some of those," said Guillermo. But, for people injured in the first earthquake, there had been time for infection to set in. "Some people needed amputations, some needed continuing care for open wounds. We also organized a team of nurses to do wound care, which was very successful."
In Haiti, amputation is seen as akin to a death sentence. "Amputees are viewed as people who can no longer be useful in society, so they are ostracized. Because of that, some people were waiting too long to agree to let doctors amputate a limb," said Guillermo.
"It's hard to say how many patients we helped, because we were involved in so many things," he continued. "We met medical professionals from around the U.S. and the world, and worked with some of them: doctors from Sweden, from New York, from the Cleveland Clinic. Brad helped out by working with a group of trauma surgeons. Bart's anesthesia services were much in demand, and he actually helped with some C-section births. It was nice that some new lives were born while we were there."
After the three left Haiti on January 20 and returned home, they hugged their loved ones tightly and shed a few tears for those left behind. "As we waited to leave Haiti, we were next to a group of 100 children from an orphanage that had been cleared to be adopted in the U.S.," said Bart. "It was wonderful to see them on the way to a new life as we returned to the good life that we have here."
There are estimated to be 3,000 to 4,000 new amputees in Haiti. Guillermo is working to create a new program, called Mobility, to help them. The program will initially provide crutches, then wheelchairs, and eventually simple prostheses. "We left Haiti, but it hasn't left us," said Guillermo. "The experience will stay with us always, and we'll keep working to meet the long-term needs of the people there."