The first thing that hits you is the smell. It’s the diesel dirty sunny smell that laces the air of all third world Caribbean cities.
Deb and I and about 75 others got off the plane in Port Au Prince to that smell and were moved rather quickly to the tent city that functions as Haiti’s best hospital. Other smells would soon greet us.
After a brief orientation, we met with our division chiefs and then it was off to work. Yesterday, the day we landed, I was operating within 45 minutes of hitting the ground and kept it up for 9 hours straight.
Deb kept right up with me, working even harder to keep the rooms running. She is a master at fitting in and flowing with whatever issues arise, working within the system to make things better. Today, our second day was a little easier, with only about 7 hours of surgery so far.
It seems that most of the earthquake related injuries are in their “final phases.” Wounds are still horrific, but they are of the chronic variety and seem to be about 1/3 of our patients here. Another third are acute injuries, things like motorcycle accidents and other traumas, and a final third are chronic or acute conditions arising in the population.
It seems that the earthquake’s toll on the population will extend far beyond the immediate destruction. By taking down all of the hospitals in the area save one, we have become busy by default.
–we sleep under a massive circus tent on cots with straw and gravel under our feet. It has been hot, brutally so under the gowns of the operating room (I think I’ve been through a half gallon of Gatorade already). The toilets are Port-au-Potties (get it?).
We shower behind pieces of plywood that drench us with luke-warm “gray water.” It sounds kind of rustic, but I don’t know that I‘ve ever felt more refreshed after a long hot day.
The UN complex is next door, but we have to go outside the fence of the grounds to get there and the word is that even the Haitians don’t go outside after dark.
So, the UN came to us last night with a lunch truck serving cheeseburgers and beer. A steel drum band, and it would have been really nice.
There are people here from all over the world, but about 90% seem to be from the US. The wound care team is first class.
A company called KCI donated over 2 million dollars worth of a device called a VAC which helps tremendously with the care of these difficult problems.
Our surgical group is quite skilled, with a neurosurgeon, pediatric surgeon, a general surgeon, two orthopods and another plastic surgeon making it up. I was wondering how my skill set would fit in, but everything seems to “come back.” Just like riding a bike.
The real heroes of this place, though, are the patients. Despite crushing poverty, they are warm, friendly and grateful. Their stories are heartbreaking and the social situations are dismal, but they have a strong religious tradition and seem to be genuinely happy.
It just started raining. Maybe it will cool things off.
Writer: Robert Sigal, M.D.
Category: Cosmetic Surgery