Simple tool saves lives in Port-au-Prince’s largest hospital

The 30-year old man arrived at l’Hopital de l’Université d’Etat d’Haiti (HUEH) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti after a motorcycle accident this week, conscious but confused. His nurse, Marlene Cherizard, checked his oxygen saturation level – an indicator often called the “fifth vital sign” because of its importance – with a simple tool called a pulse oximeter, which she first learned how to use in an Emergency Medicine training course given by International Medical Corps at HUEH. The pulse oximeter reported the patient’s blood saturation to be 88 percent – a dangerously low level.  Alerted, she immediately placed the patient on life-saving oxygen, as the doctors explored the causes of his traumatic injuries.

At HUEH , nurses, residents and students assess dozens of incoming patients to the emergency department every day. These patients have a variety of illnesses and injuries, including cholera, asthma, cardiac arrest, seizure, trauma, and more. Just a few months ago, health professionals had no way of measuring the oxygen saturation of the blood. Oxygen saturation measures the level of oxygen within the blood, and is key to determining diagnosis and treatment for emergency patients.

This all changed with the implementation of International Medical Corps’ Emergency and Disaster Care (EDC) program at HUEH. Supported by the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, the EDC program is the first comprehensive emergency medicine training program in Haiti. One of the program’s most important components is a series of training courses for physicians and nurses to introduce and implement emergency medical care in Haiti.

Following a month-long training course, International Medical Corps gives graduating doctors and nurses a pulse oximeter. . The inexpensive hand-held, battery-operated device clips onto a patient’s finger and measures oxygen saturation and heart rate in seconds.

“Before the pulse oximeter, we had to guess if someone was getting enough oxygen,” said Dr. Cheron Alix, a physician trained by International Medical Corps, who works in the HUEH Emergency Department. “We would guess by the patient’s color and by the symptoms they presented, but we weren’t always right. With the pulse oximeter, I can find out immediately what the oxygen saturation level is. I now have a greater ability to help patients coming in for emergencies.”

Currently, 85 nurses and 54 physicians have completed training. Each one now works at HUEH with their pulse oximeters hanging on lanyards around their necks.  International Medical Corps expects another 50 nurses and 35 physicians to complete the course in the coming months, and each of those professionals will also receive their own pulse oximeter. This tool, along with the important emergency training and rehabilitation of the emergency department, are already providing the foundation for emergency medical care in Haiti and making an immediate difference in patient lives, such as that of the 30-year-old Haitian motorcyclist.

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