Michael Felber, RN, is a nurse at Children’s Hospital Boston. He spent two weeks as a medical volunteer in Haiti in March of 2010, in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the country. The following February he returned with a group of clinicians from the Global Surgery Program at Children’s, to work at a hospital founded by Partners In Health. While there he met a child who changed his understanding of the relationship between caregiver and patient.
In February of 2011 I spent a week working with a Children’s team in the village of Cange, in Haiti’s Central Plateau. The region has been served by Partners In Health and its Haitian sister organization Zanmi Lasante for over 25 years. Together they have built a hospital and a multitude of programs to improve health, education, agriculture and social services. Our goal was to collaborate with PIH and Zamni Lasante, in their development of surgical programs and medical education for Haiti.
Our first patient was Louveda, a sweet and articulate 12-year-old girl with severe burns on her thighs and abdomen from a kerosene lantern accident two months earlier. Both her parents had died in the past year so her 14-year-old sister, Anita, was her primary caretaker. (Since Louveda’s accident, the two girls lived at the hospital, sharing a single bed.) She was wrapped in wet, stained bandages. She tried to remain as still as possible because it hurt her to move. She said it was hard to rest because her bandages were hot and itchy.
With the help of the Haitian clinical staff we arranged for sedation in an operating room so we could change her dressings and assess and debride her wounds. We brought a stretcher to her bedside, and in a calm and mater of fact way she asked, “Am I dead?” It occurred to me that in the two months she had been in the main surgical ward of the hospital, an open room with about twenty other patients, she had seen others die and be removed on stretchers. And it was realistic to assume that she too would not survive her injuries. Despite it all she seemed calm. In the operating room she smiled and held my hand as she went to sleep.
While she slept we cut her bandages off with scissors. The smell and wounds were overwhelming. Her upper legs and stomach were covered with deep, angry red wounds. There was a pressure ulcer on her left ankle, nearly exposing bone. We washed her wounds and put her in a clean gown and fresh bandages. As the initial shock of her injuries wore off, we began thinking of a long-term plan for her.
The good news was she was medically stable, but that wouldn’t last. She was anemic and malnourished. (A common complication for burn patients because they tend to have greatly elevated nutritional needs.) Her body was compensating physically, but would not be able to do so indefinitely. Her breathing and pulse were too fast and her muscles and skin were wasting and breaking down. She needed nutritional support, blood, physical therapy and help for emotional trauma. And mostly she needed skin grafts to close her wounds. Her injuries were extensive but treatable, but not with the resources available in Cange at this time. …
While medical care in poor countries, like Haiti, has increased over the last 20 years, surgical care has largely been ignored and has even been labeled “the neglected stepchild of global public health.” Here, Stephen Sullivan, one of Children’s Global Surgery Fellows, discusses his experience delivering surgical care in Haiti.
By Stephen R. Sullivan, MD, MPH
Each morning Sara*, a 63 year-old woman from a rural village in central Haiti, wakes to the call of roosters. On one such morning, she woke in darkness and, like usual, leaned over in her small hut to light her kerosene lamp. Tragically, the lamp had accidentally been filled with gasoline instead of kerosene. It exploded, and Sara suffered severe burns to her face and upper body. She was eight hours away from the nearest clinic, suffering from life-threatening burns. …