A team of 15 nurses, surgeons and other specialists from several Bay Area hospitals have returned from more than a week in Haiti, treating earthquake victims amidst power outages and primitive conditions in a hospital outside Port-au-Prince.
Members of the surgical team, who regularly work at Sutter Health facilities in the area, gathered at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco today to share details of their experience.
Anesthesiologist John Donovan called the situation “an orthopedic disaster.” Many survivors of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake suffered crushed limbs that required serious treatment or amputation.
The need in Haiti is 20 percent medical and 80 percent organizational behavior, he said. Since the quake has destroyed much of the island nation’s infrastructure, team members spoke of surgical teams that arrived in Port-au-Prince but did not have any facilities or capacity to perform much-needed surgeries.
The Sutter team set up camp in the town of St. Marc, where the local hospital building was still intact, but conditions were otherwise primitive, according to operating room nurse Joan Chamberlain. An estimated 750 patients crammed into the 150-bed hospital, spreading out across the floor on mattresses, doors, or even pieces of cardboard, she said. When the team arrived, the hospital’s standard procedure was to turn off IV tubes and stop dispensing pain medications at night.
In addition to the pressing need for their medical skills, the group had to address issues taken for granted in most stateside hospitals. Patients did not have identifying wristbands, or charts to track their previous treatment and medication, according to team members.
Sutter’s East Bay Chief Medical Officer Steve Lockhart said team members spent time organizing the large amounts of medication coming in from all parts of the world, all in different languages and in different concentrations, he said.
The team worked closely with doctors from Massachusetts General, as well as other medical volunteers from all over the world. Lockhart said the Sutter volunteers helped implement programs like sterilizing instruments and patient identification to improve patient care after the volunteers’ departure.
The hospital suffered sporadic power outages, making it difficult to wheel a patient through the halls, much less perform surgery. Volunteers became accustomed to wearing helmet lights, Pulmonary acute care nurse Liz Petruzzella said. When the power went out, doctors and nurses would simply pop on their headlamps and continue operating.
The medical volunteers praised the Haitian doctors and nurses who worked alongside the Americans.
Lockhart said that local hospital staff members worked tirelessly, despite the fact that all of them had lost family members and many were homeless themselves.
It was easy to forget, he said, that they were just as interested in getting U.S. food dispatches as the patients they treated.
Team members arrived Jan. 21, after the initial wave of urgent rescue care had passed, according to orthopedic surgeon Taylor Smith. Survivors required a great deal of surgery, and the medical team found that closing up a wound was almost sure to result in infection since earthquake debris permeates the air.
The volunteers flew to Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale, where a donated plane shuttled them into Haiti. Operating room nurse Cassie Kinser recalled stuffing the plane with as many medical supplies as possible, including filling up the aircraft lavatory.
Volunteers brought their own food, but had access to “an unlimited supply of overcooked goat.” Kinser said. The team slept on the floor in one big room of a nearby house, getting four to six hours on a good night.
The group returned Friday and Saturday, emotionally and physically exhausted and eager for showers and sleep. Team members chronicled their trip at www.shhelpshaiti.blogspot.com.