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Too big a task - Medics worry they can't 'heal' Haiti

Published:Wednesday | January 20, 2010 | 1:00 AM

Laura Redpath, Senior Gleaner Writer

Port-au-Prince, Haiti:

At the end of their first day in Haiti, Jamaican medical practitioners said they did not feel as if they did much because there was more surgery required than anything else. There were at least 20 medics and three of them were surgeons.

The horrifying fact is there are Haitians dying from cuts that were left unattended. There are others who had no choice but to settle with the gaping holes in their bodies for various reasons. Some of these reasons include lack of transport to health-care facilities, which are overcrowded, roadblocks and a shortage of doctors.

"I feel as if I didn't do much today," said Dr Arlington Lightbourne, one of the doctors who spent the entire day changing bandages and diagnosing injuries. "Injuries that could have been dealt with now need surgery because they were left unattended for so long."

He said this while preparing himself for what would be a long night, his first in Haiti. Spending a night under the stars may sound lovely until you do it at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, on a cot next to the runway.

Grateful to sleep outside

Planes landed and took off throughout the night, the temperature dropped, the wind kept blowing and there was another earth tremor. This tremor woke persons and many said they felt grateful for being able to sleep outside and away from buildings. Getting up the next day and realising your blanket, shoes and socks were soaked through because of morning dew is disheartening, especially when you know the awful nature of the day that lies ahead.

The daily routine includes getting up before dawn to head out in armoured vehicles or with Jamaica Defence Force soldiers who are armed all the time. The rest of the day is spent treating patients, most of whom will die without follow-up care. Doctors and nurses sometimes take refuge in a back room somewhere, as they need time away from the screaming and the crying.

Patients were still being treated outside while flies paid more attention to their wounds than anything else. Cries of "whoi, whoi, whoi" were frequent, as doctors tried to clean wounds that more than likely would lead to amputation.

Surgeons were busy slicing away at limbs.

"Hello!" one of the Ministry of Health nurses called out to one of the passing Haitian nurses. "I need to know where we put the leg when we've cut if off?"

Out came a clear plastic garbage bag.

"That's it?"

"It's all we have," said the Haitian nurse.

A young teenager could not stop crying. Eventually, Dr Adriana Hamilton, the only Jamaican anaesthesiologist, sedated her and her cries ended. The girl's eyes, glazed and unseeing, kept opening and closing while Dr Carlos Wilson cleaned a hole in her left ankle, showing bone, the tip black, and tissue with a hint of green.

Dr San San Win described the scene at the hospital as chaotic.

The Jamaican doctors and nurses managed to bring some structure to chaos at the Santé Bernhard Meus by posting signs, and keeping track of patients seen.

"There are patients that can be discharged," Dr Lightbourne said. "But when I tell them it's OK for them to leave they tell me they have nowhere to go.

"Their homes are gone. Where do I send them?"