By Cheryl L. Reed
Photo by Justin Ide

These are strong, inspiring people who have a profound sense of spirituality that helped get them through this.”
—Rex Haydon
University of Chicago Medical Center orthopedic surgeon

After a Jan. 12 earthquake devastated much of Haiti, health care providers from the University of Chicago Medical Center traveled to the Caribbean for medical relief efforts. Cheryl L. Reed, senior editor of Medical Center publications, describes her 10-day experience with a volunteer medical team at Fond Parisien, Haiti:

All day, we inhale dust from winds that scrape the arid ground and breathe in diesel fumes from the generators that power the field camp in Fond Parisien, Haiti.

At night, we trade stories about the injured patients and how we stifle our emotions. We eat one hot meal a day: rice with specks of beans. We take cold bucket showers and drink tepid well water. The sounds of Creole gospel songs waft up from the nearby hills as we try to sleep on the ground in our tents. We have no luxuries like cold drinks, vegetables, or self-pity. In our brief moments of despair, we are reminded of all that we have—and all that the patients at this field hospital do not have.

Modest though it is, this is a place of refuge. The hospital is run by doctors, nurses, and physical therapists from the University of Chicago Medical Center and Harvard University, along with medical organizations from 15 countries. Days after the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed 320,000 Haitians, mostly in Port-au-Prince, the tent hospital was established on the grounds of the Love A Child orphanage, a bumpy hour’s drive from Port-au-Prince.

Since the earthquake, three separate UChicago volunteer teams, totaling more than 40 health care providers, have spent one to six weeks contributing to medical relief efforts in Haiti or across the border in the Dominican Republic. The Medical Center has donated more than $250,000 in resources to the effort, including medical supplies, medication, and X-ray and ultrasound devices.

Volunteers Say, ‘I can’t do enough’

Set on a mountainside near the border of the Dominican Republic, the field camp consists of neat rows of tents where the homeless patients recover from broken bones and amputated limbs. Some hobble around on walking casts or with crutches. The more seriously wounded lay on cots, their bodies feeling the phantom aches of legs and arms that they no longer have.

During the day, the temperature in the tents is so stifling that Melanie Plumley, a pediatric emergency nurse from Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago, cares for patients outside. She cuts off a man’s cast in a narrow space between two tents.

“There’s never enough people,” she says as she rips at the plaster around the man’s leg. “There’s always something to do. I can’t do enough.”

Meanwhile, Medical Center physical therapists Catherine Kennedy and Megan McDonald go “door to door,” urging patients to exercise their injured body parts, especially those with amputations whose muscles need to be stretched. Some patients with hand injuries have fingers that have curled under, and Chris Sullivan, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the Medical Center, has to stretch them out. It’s painful work for the patients.

In the triage tent, the cots are nearly full. Besides the 1,000 earthquake victims who have been treated here, sick patients in the surrounding community are drawn to the camp. Pregnant women arrive alongside mothers with sick children. Many of the children suffer from severe malnutrition. They often go away disappointed that they can’t be immediately cured.

Harrowing Tales from Fateful Day

The inpatient population remains steady at about 270. Patients can’t be discharged unless they have a safe place to go. Most don’t. A little less than a quarter of the patients have had their arms and limbs amputated, and they will remain until they can be fitted with prostheses.

One of the saddest cases is a young mother, Louphine Demorcy, 31, a vendor from Port-au-Prince who has three children. When the earthquake struck, the sidewalk under her feet opened up, and Demorcy called out: “Jesus, Jesus, help me.” She was thrown into the street, where a store wall fell on her arm and another wall fell on her leg. She lay there for hours before she realized most of the people around her were dead.

A man passing by on the street saw her and pulled her out of the rubble. It wasn’t until the next day that someone found her in the street and took her to a hospital in Port-au-Prince.

Eventually, an ambulance transported her to the Dominican Republic, where a doctor told her that he would have to amputate most of her arm and leg because they were infected. She was transported to the Fond Parisien field hospital after her amputations.

“I didn’t have a hope after I lost my arm and leg,” she says. “Then I told myself that most people died, and Jesus is going to help me.”

Though the Medical Center clinical workers often put in 15-hour days in brutal heat, they are impressed with the resilience of the Haitian people.

“If I had the same patient at home with an amputated arm and amputated leg, at this stage they would be depressed and on Prozac and Ativan and taking something and seeing a psychiatrist,” says Plumley as she restocks the supply room. “These people don’t have a psychiatrist. And they are getting through this better than anyone I’ve ever seen anyone get through anything. They are not crying in their tents, they are not moaning ‘why me why me?’ They are getting up, washing themselves, feeding themselves. Doing the next thing. They have no choice, but they are doing it. It’s amazing. It’s really amazing.”

Medical Center orthopedic surgeon Rex Haydon calls his experience in Haiti humbling. “We can focus a lot on the tragic element. But these are strong, inspiring people who have a profound sense of spirituality that helped get them through this. Even the ones who can’t walk, if you can get them to church, you can get them dancing.”

Originally published on April 26, 2010.