Harrowing tales from Haiti 

Aug 27
2010

By Sarah Tompkins - sarah.tompkins@nwi.com, (219) 836-3780

The Haitian man's jugular vein was pulsing out of the wound in his neck, blood running down his chest.

Methodist Hospitals' Dr. Nicholas Johnson and physician assistant Johanne Theodule had just finished setting up basic medical supplies at an open-air church in Carrefour, Haiti, when the man was carried to them.

He had been stabbed in the neck with a sharp stick.

Johnson and Theodule laid him on the concrete floor of the church and tended to his wound as best they could. And he survived.

"I saw a horrible thing on television but I couldn't really personally connect with how awful it was until I went down there and saw for myself how bad it was," Johnson said about the earthquake.

Johnson, associate director of emergency medicine at Methodist's Gary campus, and Theodule were among about 50 health care personnel who went to Haiti through Hospitals for Humanity in the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit the Caribbean island on Jan. 12. The two returned to the United States on Saturday.

About 150,000 bodies have been recovered in the aftermath, and almost 200,000 people have been injured.

"Just to see that, everyone just getting together and doing their part to help the Haitian people, I was proud to be an American," said Theodule, who speaks Creole and French and translated for American volunteers.

Theodule had family members in Haiti who survived the earthquake. She said immediately following the disaster she was trying to figure out a way to help.

"As soon as I heard about it, I thought I have to go," she said. "I speak the language. I have the training. I have to go."

She said between working in Cook County and Gary she was prepared for the emergency cases that came to the clinic.

"Neither of us at any point was so shocked we didn't know what to do," she said, noting that trauma cases come in almost every day at Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus in Gary.

Johnson, who is also the trauma medicine coordinator at Methodist, said he went to Haiti to help people who were suffering.

Right as they were finishing stitching the man with the neck wound, Johnson said they heard screams from off in the distance. A pregnant woman who was having seizures was carried into the church. She was 26 weeks pregnant, he said, and if they did not deliver the baby, both would have died.

"We knew we had to get the baby out, and we had to do some pretty major abdominal surgery on the floor of a church that would definitely expose the mother to infection," Johnson said. "But the benefit to both the unborn child and the mother outweighed the risks."

The cesarean section lasted two to three minutes. In the process of delivering the child, Johnson and another doctor lost their scalpels on the blood-stained concrete floor. Johnson took the umbilical cord in his hands and ripped it to separate the child from the mother.

"My first thought is, 'This baby is too small, it's not going to make it,' " he said. "The next second after I said it to myself the baby coughed and started breathing."

Johnson and Theodule said one of the biggest challenges of working at the clinic was the lack of supplies for serious cases that in the United States would be transferred to Level 1 trauma centers.

"It's just unreal," Theodule said. "I've done things like that before, but just not under those conditions. You just use what you can."

Theodule said a man came to them with a belly swollen the size of a full-term pregnant woman. Making the best of the conditions, she put a needle in his side and drained the fluid into a small garbage can.

With a poor infrastructure even before the earthquake hit, methods of delivering supplies across Haiti are more challenging after the disaster, said Samuel Flint, associate dean of Indiana University Northwest's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

"It's a logistical nightmare," Flint said.

CNN and other news media were reporting an influx of doctors and not enough supplies in Haiti earlier this week. Now that the port is open, Flint said supply levels should improve.

"Doctors cannot help to the extent that would be possible because of a lack of supplies and sanitary conditions," Flint said. "It's that they need the medical infrastructure there."

Johnson said the team of health care professionals improvised with the materials it had. In the case of a dying 11-month-old boy, Johnson said he could not find a vein because the child was so dehydrated. Johnson used a spinal tap needle to deliver fluids and antibiotics into the bone marrow of the boy's lower leg.

"It was the only needle that could get into the bone," he said. "We didn't have a drill at all. I took the needle in between my fingers and started spinning it around a few times until I could feel it pop into the bone, and it miraculously worked."

The medical team returned home early from the trip because the military changed the group's scheduled departure. About 140 flights land in Haiti each day, and on the way in, Johnson said they were told if they were a few minutes off their landing time they would have to go back to the States to make room for other relief efforts.

"It was nothing that was in our control at all, but it didn't sit well that we had to (leave) early," Johnson said.

Johnson and Theodule said they might return to Haiti in March to offer more medical care.

"It was nice to see people so passionate to help other people," Johnson said. "It gave me a renewed hope for the world."

Theodule agreed. She said the Haitians were very grateful, making her realize many of the frustrating situations she had before leaving the United States -- like closing on a house -- were good situations to be in, compared with having nothing.

"A lady came to me and gave me coffee because that was her way of showing appreciation," Theodule said. "When I tried to pay her, she said, 'No way. You left your safe country, you risked your life to come here to help us. A little coffee is the least I can do for you.' This is the Haitian attitude ... they need so much help but they are not demanding."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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