The small commuter plane had to make two rounds in the sky before it could land on the oddest of runways: a playground with goats, pigs and donkeys roaming around.
The plane carried a team of five physicians and medical professionals trained in emergency response from the School of Medicine and Yale-New Haven Hospital. They arrived in Hinche, Haiti on Jan. 26 to provide trauma relief and surgical assistance and to deliver donated medical equipment and supplies. The team returned early Monday morning with stories of hardship, accomplishment and a commitment to future relief efforts.
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Emergency medicine specialist Gregory Larkin, who headed the team, said the Jan. 12 earthquake did not affect Hinche as much as Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. Many of the injured patients received at Hinche’s hospital — one of the poorest hospitals in Haiti, according to Larkin — traveled from Port-au-Prince on an unpaved, dusty road, said team member Nousheh Saidi, an anesthesiologist.
Peter Boone, an orthopedist from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport, Conn., said he was saddened by the destruction he saw.
“We saw people who had nothing, and had [an earthquake] thrown on top,” he said. “They were really refugees within their own country.”
Larkin recalled seeing refugee camps set up outside the hospital, with UN and Red Cross officers patrolling the area. Boone described scenes of patients’ family members sleeping in the corridors because they had lost their homes; he saw malnourished Haitians walking miles to get water from a single pump, people defecating in covered pots under beds and amputations conducted with only mild painkillers.
Boone and Saidi said the obstacles the team encountered at the hospital would not be found at a normal American hospital. Because of the Hinche hospital’s fragile infrastructure, Boone said, it ran out of water at one point. He said that while the facilities ran on off-the-grid electricity, it only had 30 days’ worth of fuel. Because of this, the hospital ran on electricity until the sun went down, after which flashlights became the primary source for light.
In addition to sweltering heat, overcrowded wards full of insects and rat-infested operating rooms, the walls of hospital were cracked and the air conditioners were leaking fluid profusely, Saidi said. The hospital, she added, also lacked medical and basic supplies such as light bulbs, blankets and splints. The intensive care unit had only one oxygen tank, and the operating room was heavily disorganized, with all medical provisions dumped in one place, Saidi said, forcing her to rummage through boxes to get a syringe. She added that doctors had to rely on one small, slow autoclave to sterilize their instruments.
While the team brought along a year’s supply of painkillers along with defibrillators and other medical equipment, team member Donald MacMillan, a physician assistant, said hospital conditions forced doctors to find creative ways to treat patients, such as using PVC pipes, sand and duct tape to hold fractured bones in place.
The four team members interviewed described Haitian citizens as stoic. Boone talked of patients’ blank expressions, showing neither anger or happiness. He added that they never heard a wounded patient complain or scream out in pain. Saidi said she was shocked when a patient’s family member thanked Saidi for amputating the patient’s leg, which Saidi said was a surprising act of gratitude for such a brutal operation. Despite all the tragedy that has enveloped the island nation, they said they agreed on the Haitian community’s strong and resilient spirit.
Larkin, who met with the dean of the medical school in Port-au-Prince, said the team was invited back for further relief efforts. Larkin said he hopes Yale takes steps towards forming a lasting commitment.
“Whether or not Yale makes an official commitment, I know I will definitely be going back myself,” Larkin said. “But Yale as an institution has the clout to bring about more change.”
A second Yale team is expected to travel to Haiti in the near future.