It’s been almost a year since an earthquake ravaged the island of Haiti, leaving 300,000 dead and over a million people homeless. Since the disaster, clinicians from Children’s Hospital Boston have been traveling to the country to provide care. Recently, a team of nurses and physicians returned from Port au Prince, where they spent a week helping with relief efforts. Conditions were extremely difficult: on top of a rapidly spreading outbreak of cholera, hurricane Tomas hit the island a few hours before they arrived, increasing the workload of the Haitian medical staff, already working around the clock to provide care for the Haitian people. Patrica Lincoln, BSN, one of the Children’s staff members on the trip, shares her experiences.
On a dark morning in early November, four doctors and eight nurses from Children’s Hospital Boston left for Haiti to assist the healthcare workers at Hospital Bernard Mevs, in Port-au-Prince, as part of a continuing relief effort coordinated by Project Medishare.
All of us had traveled to Haiti before, some even had family on the island, but we all came back for the same reason: to work alongside and help the Haitian people who have displayed a remarkable inner strength and sense of faith since the devastating earthquake hit the country almost a year ago.
We arrived that afternoon, and as we flew over the island we saw flooding and other damage caused by a hurricane that had battered the island the night before. Still, despite the violent weather that had swept through the area just 24 hours ago, when we stepped off the plane we were greeted with bright sunshine. It was a peaceful moment, but a short-lived one; there was urgent work to be done.
We made our way to pediatric unit at Bernard Mevs and found a short summary of each patient’s condition attached to his crib or cot, left by the American group who had help staffed the unit before us. Through translators, the dedicated Haitian healthcare workers explained the work they had been doing, and what awaited us in the upcoming seven days.
Within minutes of our arrival the first emergency occurred. A baby had been born earlier in the afternoon, estimated about 28 weeks gestation, and was breathing over 100 times a minute. We administered oxygen and IV fluids, but the only oxygen available was provided through portable tanks that frequently needed to be changed. Unfortunately, any small adjustment in the oxygen supply caused the baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels to drop dramatically. We provided medication and breathing assistance and closely monitored him to make sure he stabilized correctly. What a strong little boy, by Wednesday he was able to start taking small amounts of breast milk from a bottle, and slowly the oxygen he needed was decreased. His mother was taught how to pump her milk for bottle-feeding, until her baby grew strong enough to nurse.
Another baby was admitted later in the week, but she was so malnourished the team was unable to help her. The five-month-old girl weighed barely more than four pounds and was far too ill to be helped given the surroundings.
The cholera that had been sweeping through Haiti had already reached Port-au-Prince by the time we arrived. A separate tent had been established to treat patients suffering from the disease; everything in contact with the patients had to be washed in bleach – even our hands. The team did everything possible to ease the suffering of the youngest cholera victims, including making Pedialyte popsicles in the pharmacy’s freezer, which was the only cold-storage available in the whole area.
A majority of the Children’s team worked in the medical clinics, which took place from 7 am until the final patient had been seen. The lines were often a hundred or more people long. During the day, medical and nursing students from Port-au-Prince often joined the Haitian and American staff that was trying desperately to stay ahead of the growing case numbers in the clinic and hospital wards. The university building that housed their medical classes had been destroyed in the earthquake, and classes have not yet resumed because a suitable place to host them hasn’t been constructed. Rather than wait for a classroom to be built, these industrious students are continuing their education alongside the hospital staff, gaining invaluable on the job training that will greatly compliment their formal schooling when it resumes.
One of our team’s main focuses while in Haiti was to educate the local physicians and nurses so they may independently staff and eventually run Bernard Mevs. We provided much needed pediatric training in fields like CPR or taught the best ways to utilize baseline measurements in pediatric and OB clinic patients. Teaching the local medical staff the proper way to asses breath sounds was especially crucial, as reactive airway disease is very common in the area.
When formal teaching was required, classes usually took place in a small kitchen. Cholera treatment and prevention were among the more important classes, and a group of health care workers from the community joined the hospital staff for teaching.
By the following Saturday, our team was preparing our own patient summaries, so they’d be ready for the incoming Americans who would take our place. The week had been such a whirlwind few of us really had time to process all we had seen, but as we watched from the plane as Haiti turned into a fading dot on the horizon, it was clear the patients, families and hospital staff we met there had made an irrevocable impression on our hearts and minds.
Children’s employees do a lot of medical work abroad. Peter Rohloff, MD, a resident here at Children’s, started an organization to provide cultural and linguistically appropriate healthcare to the indigenous people of the Guatemalan Highlands. His work will be featured tomorrow on ABC News’s 20/20 program. Click here for a sneak preview.