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Hamptons Life

Feb 3, 2010 11:14 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Medical mission team sees resilient spirits in spite of devastation in Haiti

Feb 3, 2010 11:14 AM

The airport at Port-au-Prince looked the way Dr. Medhat Allam imagined a war zone would.

When he and 16 other medical practitioners, many from Southampton Hospital, arrived there by plane at around 1 a.m. on January 24 for what would be a weeklong emergency medical mission, the capital city had all but collapsed on itself after the devastating earthquake that struck just a week before. Standing in the dark, surrounded by 3,000 pounds of medical supplies, the noise of the U.S. military activity was deafening, Dr. Allam said this week. Members of the Air Force and Marines were patrolling with machine guns and standing alongside tanks in a scene of organized chaos—the kind that would mark much of the rest of their trip.

The group was in Haiti on a rushed trip organized by International Surgical Medical Support, a Southampton-based nonprofit co-founded by Dr. Allam that sends fully equipped medical teams to impoverished countries to perform surgeries at no charge to patients. Before leaving for Haiti on January 23, Dr. Allam had said his team would be successful because they were prepared for anything.

Immediately upon arriving in the country, Haiti’s collapsed infrastructure put that claim to the test.

Standing in the dark terminal of the airport where they landed, the group learned that the local organization that they had expected would receive them couldn’t get through the jammed and debris-filled roadways, and the clinic from which they expected to run their operation had fallen apart. They switched to what the group said was the first of many “Plan Bs.”

Gregory Dalencourt, a Hatian-American doctor with the team from Southampton, called upon his in-laws, who had already volunteered to house the medical team for the week. The family secured a dump truck, picked the group and their supplies up, and brought them to the family home in Petion Ville. The house was still intact, but everyone slept outside for fear of another aftershock—and in fact there were several throughout the week the doctors were in Haiti.

After pitching tents and trying to get a few hours of sleep, the team regrouped and went about finding a place to work. The first hospital they visited was almost empty, said anesthetist Robert Mineo. “There didn’t seem to be a lot going on. It was like lunch hour,” he said. There were also no patients, so the doctors kept looking.”

Eventually, the medical team found the Haiti Community Hospital in Delmas, where the situation was more reminiscent of the military activity of the airport than at the previous hospital. “The people were all over the place,” Mr. Mineo said. “People were trying to push their way in.”

Dr. Allam said the hospital had four wings that surrounded a courtyard. The courtyard served as the operating ground for mission teams from around the world, and that ground was scattered with patients waiting for treatment and in recovery. The Southampton group didn’t waste any time and found an old storage warehouse. They spent four hours sterilizing the facility so it could be used as an operating room and by that evening, they had eight patients waiting. By the next day, there were 25.

At the end of the trip, the team estimates, they had performed about 90 operations.

Dr. Joseph DeBellis, also from Southampton Hospital, said hunger is one of the most major issues the country is facing and children were begging for food constantly. He also said that, from the doctors’ perspective, one of biggest challenges was to pick up after the medical teams that had been there before them. He said that when the disaster first hit and medics rushed to the country, there was an onset of amputations because so many people had limbs crushed or partially crushed or even still trapped under buildings and cement.

“You can’t judge the people who were there before us,” he said, because they were acting in emergency situations. “But up to 40, 60 percent of the patients who had received amputations died anyway.”

Dr. Allam said the magnitude of the devastation was difficult to describe. He said patients were laying eight to 10 people in a tent, if they had one. They were missing limbs and afflicted with gangrene. He said there was no electricity or running water and that patients were forced to wait for treatment while laying in their own excrement, surrounded by flies.

Dr. George Keckeisen, another member of the team from Southampton Hospital, said that in the beginning, doctors in Haiti had been doing amputation after amputation, but were working so quickly and with so many patients that they were not able to provide aftercare and many patients died of infection or other complications. They also learned that in Haiti, life as an amputee was near impossible because of their poverty-stricken society doesn’t make accommodations for the disabled. “A person who is an amputee in Haiti is basically dead,” he said.

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