Helping the Haitians


Local physicians return, frustrated but proud

Area physicians who volunteered their time in Haiti have returned with mixed memories of devastation and resolve.

La Jollan Nathan Watson recently returned after two weeks with International Relief Teams ( working in Port-au-Prince, and an 11-person team of Scripps physicians and nurses came back on Feb. 5 after a one-week medical mission at Hospital Saint Francois de Sales in the island nation’s capital.

Chris Van Gorder, president/chief executive officer of Scripps Health, talked about the overwhelming dimensions of the tragedy.

“Katrina was devastating with 2,000 people killed, but in Haiti, there are 200,000 killed — and bodies still in buildings,” he noted.

Watson, who works as an emergency room physician in Imperial Valley and also responded in 2004 when a devastating tsunami struck Indonesia, said going to Haiti was his most difficult emergency deployment ever, but he praised the Haitians’ tenacity.

“The people are really resilient for what they underwent, which is on the same order of magnitude as the tsunami ... only in a very concentrated area,” Watson said. “We were able to see Haitians starting to bounce back, reopening on the sidewalks in the front of stores that were destroyed, people starting up outdoor food carts — it was impressive.”

But they also saw things they would rather not have.

“The most frustrating thing for us as doctors was to have patients we could have saved in the United States, but there just weren’t the (medical) resources available,” Watson said.

The physicians operated in primitive conditions and quake victims suffered for it, Watson added.

“There were hundreds of people with amputations, especially children,” he said. “The ratio of maimed to killed seemed much higher than I’d ever seen.”

The Scripps Medical Response Team — trauma surgeons and trauma nurses, orthopedic surgeons, anesthesiologists and support personnel with disaster experience — dealt with the same daunting conditions: operating without electricity, cleaning their hands at hose spigots outside.

Aside from administering life-saving humanitarian aid, Watson said doctors were proud to be able to mentor some of their Haitian counterparts.

“I taught a medical student how to suture, how to sew,” he said. “The most satisfying moment I had there was knowing that she would be suturing right from now on.”

Dr. Brent Eastman, chief medical officer of Scripps Health, also commented on sharing knowledge with the local responders. In particular, he talked of teaching how to treat “compartment syndrome,” which saved lives — and limbs.

“It was the single most common injury in this earthquake, muscle swells that exerted pressure causing muscle to die,” he said. “The only way to treat it is to make long incisions through the skin to take the pressure off. That’s what we did.”

Van Gorder said the experience was a lesson in international relations.

“We had to remind ourselves we were in Haiti: This was their country, their hospital,” he said. “We had to be cognizant that we were collaborating with the Haitians.”

Eastman shared a memory he’ll never forget, of a 100-year-old Haitian woman who was waving her arms and singing.

“It struck me it was the Haitians’ way of dealing with pain and consoling themselves,” he said. “It was consoling to all of us as well.”