When International Medical Corps Emergency Response Team arrived in Haiti the day following the massive Jan 12th earthquake and three other doctors quickly followed on day two, it was a group of four emergency medicine physicians and four emergency room nurses Stanford University Medical Center that answered the call for reinforcements.
Since arriving in Port au Prince on the morning of Sunday, Jan 17th, the eight have worked for nearly two weeks, putting in punishing hours amid some of the most challenging conditions they have ever faced in order to treat those injured by the quake. Visibly exhausted, the team departs for home today (Friday).
Soon after their arrival, team member Paul Auerbach, Professor of Surgery in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Stanford Medical School, assumed the role coordinating all medical services at the hospital being delivered by the 15-20 different international relief groups working there. Friday, Auerbach hands that role over to another International Medical Corps emergency care physician, Soloman Kuah from Columbia University’s School of Medicine.
They have done outstanding work and saved countless lives as part of the international medical response effort at the country’s main hospital in downtown Port au Prince. Still, Robert Norris, who heads the Division of Emergency Medicine at Stanford’s School of Medicine, said he looked towards his departure with bitter-sweet emotions.
“We’re glad to go home, but we’re very sad too,” he said. “There’s so much still to do, but there are good people following us.”
He said he awoke at 3am Thursday morning fixed with the idea he had not done enough. Still, it’s hard to see how he and his colleagues could have done more. The sheer enormity of the devastation and demand for medical treatment in the initial days simply overwhelmed the ability to assist all those in need.
After being up for 24 hours straight the evening prior to departure in order to gather and pack supplies, including $20,000 medical equipment and supplies donated by the Stanford Hospital and Clinics, the group took a difficult overland route through the night into Port au Prince from Santo Domingo to begin their work at the University Hospital.
In an interview Thursday, Norris looked back on the first three days as a blur as he and his team worked with others to organize a system to triage those needing assistance into degrees of urgency and prioritize those patients requiring immediate surgery into their own levels of urgency.
“No one even stopped to eat,” he recalled. Although Norris is an experienced physician in the field of emergency medicine and had worked in international settings previously, including a stint with International Medical Corps in Iraq, he said had never experienced any medical emergency approaching the magnitude of the Haiti earthquake.
Parts of one hospital building were sectioned off into “wards” delineated by numbers scrawled on walls to break down the number of patients into units small enough to prioritize the injured. A medical professional assigned to each ward established a priority list, with the most severely injured brought in for surgery as operating theatre capacity became free.
When a major aftershock shook the city January 18th, patients were quickly evacuated outside onto the hospital grounds and when it was clear they and their families preferred to remain outside rather than risk being injured once again by collapsing concrete, a small tent community grew under the trees, protecting those patients recovering and those awaiting treatment.
When, a full week after the quake struck, a five year-old boy named Monley was miraculously found alive in the rubble, it was Stanford emergency room nurse Gabriella McAdoo, who treated him after the boy was picked up and driven to the hospital by International Medical Corps physician Neil Joyce. McAdoo and Monley appeared together on global benefit concert the following Saturday.
Anil Menon, an emergency medicine physician, said it was extremely difficult to see patients he wanted to treat immediately, but couldn’t because there were others in even greater need.
Now, two weeks later as they prepare to depart, Menon and the rest of those treating the injured are getting the time they need to treat urgent, complicated cases as they come in. And as they depart, those recovering from surgery at the university outnumber those awaiting surgery.
In addition to Norris, Auerbach, McAdoo and Menon, the group included emergency medicine physician Ian Brown, and emergency room nurses Heather Tilson, Jonathan Gardener and Julie Racioppi.