DMOS Physicians Travel on Medical Mission to Haiti

This is an incredible story of how a small 40 bed hospital in Milot, Haiti (70 miles north of the earthquake epicenter of Port au Prince) has now become a major trauma center of 300 plus beds….. it is miraculous! The efforts to establish a treatment and triage center was a cooperative effort of the Hospital Sacre Coeur, the community of Milot, CRUDEM (acronym for Center for the Rural Development of Milot) and the many medical volunteers working together to make this miracle happen.

Within days following the quake Sister Marie Vittetoe, cousin of David Vittetoe, MD, asked for his help to come to Haiti to provide orthopaedic care. Sister Marie Vittetoe is employed by CRUDEM and is based in Haiti. Within 2 days two DMOS surgeons, David Vittetoe MD and Matthew DeWall MD, were on a plane bound for Haiti; a third surgeon, Jon Gehrke MD and Damir Mujic, Surgical Tech from Iowa Health – Des Moines, followed 2 days later.

“This was my first visit to a country that has such great need even before the earthquake. It was a new experience for me; seeing how the people of Haiti live; their poor living conditions, the tragedy on top of poverty,” shared Dr. DeWall. “As soon as we arrived we started work immediately, the number of people who had very severe injuries was overwhelming. There was a never ending stream of patients. While in surgery we could hear the helicopters continuing to come in and it seemed like you didn’t make any headway. It wasn’t discouraging though; we treated each individual patient to be sure we were doing all that we could.”

“The conditions were extraordinary. The patients had no pain medications, splints or previous medical care to their injuries prior being transported to us at Hospital Sacre Coeur. Many patients had significant injuries and were developing secondary concerns like infections due to the lack of care. The patients were very stoic, cooperative and especially tough. Their toughness was remarkable to me!” continues DeWall.

On Sunday following the quake a MASH type operation (but more primitive) was set up at the 40 bed hospital. Doctors from the French Government field hospital I Port au Prince visited to view the facility and capabilities. They were impressed and within 2 hours helicopters transporting patients with 10 patients each began to arrive. The following day the US Navy arrived to evaluate the capacity and capabilities and to coordinate efforts going forward. The Hospital Sacre Coeur and its volunteer medical providers are a major player in the rescue effort not only because of the expanded facilities, numerous skilled volunteers and strong support of the local community, but because they were one of the first hospitals in the country with a system in place for surgery and rehabilitation. During the initial weeks following the earthquake Hospital Sacre Coeur received the most severely injured because they had the capacity and expertise to treat such injuries. “Surgical cases involved debridements and operative fixation with plates of a variety of fractures from the femur to the elbow. The majority of cases involved operative irrigation of open wounds, fractures and below knee amputations. Turnover time was slow as there was no one to pick or find appropriate hardware and supplies except the surgeon and perhaps an assistant(s). This was compounded by the limited number of autoclaves and actual hardware available. Radiological services were almost nonexistent although there was a small mini-FluoroScan available that was occasionally useful. The Haitian operative room personnel including nurse anesthetists and scrub techs were very helpful. Although language was a barrier, things seemed to get done. The patients overall were grateful for any help they could get. Many had been waiting for one to two weeks for care and were happy to be there,” explained Gehrke.

“The local residents of Milot were enthusiastic to support the effort in every possible way: organizing triage areas outside where patients were lined up by the dozens, transporting patients from the helicopters to the hospital, and more,” Dr. Gehrke continues.

Many of the Haitian victims and families often found it difficult to communicate to say thank you, but it was obvious that they were grateful for the continued support of the efforts of others. One patient made a comment to a local nurse (speaking French); the nurse chuckled. When Dr. DeWall asked the nurse what the patient said, the nurse interpreted “I am in the hands of a good American doctor!”

Sister Marie Vittetoe of CRUDEM continues to be a part of the medical coordination efforts.
“There is no question that the experiences that we all had in Haiti were life changing and despite the fact they lasted only a few days I will remember them for the rest of my life. I felt bad leaving the last day as I thought there certainly could be more time taken from my practice to help these people. There simply was an unlimited need at that point,” reflected Dr. Gehrke, he continues; “in fact, both Damir and I have the opportunity to go back in mid-March and will arrive for a week’s tour of duty at the Milot Sacre Coeur Hospital. We look forward to the opportunity once again, to make a small difference in a desperate situation.”

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