Colchester doctor returns from Haiti
I am one on the ST2 GP trainees currently working in the Obs and Gynae department. I have just returned from a week in Haiti working as a volunteer doctor with a search and rescue organisation called 'The Emergency Response Team'. This is an independent UK charity which has responded to other international disasters in the past including the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka and the earthquakes in Pakistan, as well as national emergencies such as large scale flooding.
We were a group of 6 (2 doctors and 4 paramedics) who left for Haiti on Monday 18th January. The team members were Gary Foo, Merv Redfearn, Gary Brown, Che Bruce, Dr Dimuthu Samaranayake, and Dr Nicola Cullum. We were supported by a UK based coordination team - Virginia Foo, Anita Heer, Nathalie Tanner, Kevin Toye and Robert Ellis.
We spent the week in Port-au-Prince, working in a field hospital based in the grounds of an existing hospital, in the heart of the city, close to the harbour. This part of town had been very badly damaged by the earthquake with the majority of buildings destroyed or left unsafe. Many of the patients there were too afraid of after-shocks to go back in to the hospital and were staying outdoors under tarpaulins, on makeshift beds or lying on the ground.
Conditions were tough, with a lack of basic necessities for patients such as access to clean water and enough food. There were no toileting/washing facilities available. Many of the patients' families were also camping in the grounds after their homes had been destroyed. There were only 2 nurses for approximately 100 patients, so families were essential in helping provide care.
There were a lot of traumatic injuries such as fractures, cuts and burns. A week on from the earthquake, problems with infections were also common. We had a limited supply of medications and dressings with us, and although the hospital were able to provide us with access to what they had it was still difficult to meet the demand. Many of the injuries needed surgical treatment that was simply not available. It was very difficult and at times upsetting, to be in a situation of not being able to provide patients the proper treatment and care we knew they desperately required. There was no access to any radiological or laboratory investigations. An out-door operating theatre had been set up by a Cuban charity and they were able to perform a small number of amputations each day on badly injured patients.
As aid started to arrive, some larger field hospitals were being set-up in the city. Sadly it was nearly impossible to transfer seriously ill patients to them for further care as there was no ambulance service/transport, and no telephone contact with them to find out if they could accept patients or what facilities they had. Many of the roads were blocked and there were safety issues for rescue teams restricting movement around the city. For example, one day a search and rescue team brought in an elderly lady who had been found under the rubble of her home after 7 days. She had a badly broken leg and was severely dehydrated. Our team did what we could to stabilise her condition and after several frustrating hours we managed to arrange for her to be evacuated to an American hospital, after a TV news crew agreed to take her in their vehicle.
The search and rescue effort in Haiti was the largest ever international operation of its kind. It was inspiring see teams from all over the world all working together with the aim of helping Haiti's people. For the survivors of this disaster there will be a great need for medical support and humanitarian assistance for many months and years to come.
Dr Nicola Cullum
04 February 2010
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