Last week, PIH helped to evacuate four Haitian patients in desperate need of medical treatments too complex to be handled in their devastated country.
These patients are thought to be the first Haitian earthquake victims to be evacuated to the United States.
Up until the night the plane carried the patients out of Port-au-prince, PIH staff in Boston raced to secure the arrangements and permissions to land the donated med-evac plane, bring the patients into the U.S., and deliver them to the U.S. hospitals who had generously agreed to treat them.
Meanwhile, the team in Port-au-Prince struggled to stabilize the patients—three women and a little boy—for transport. The team also brought along the boy’s father to accompany him to the U.S.
The plane flew out of Port-au-Prince in the early morning hours of January 17 and headed towards Philadelphia. However, the ordeal for the patients was not over. “It became quite apparent to me that these were very sick individuals,” said Erik Bartkowiak, the nurse who helped organize the flight and also cared for the patients during the flight. He feared that three of the four patients were so ill that they wouldn’t survive the trip.
The sickest patient, a woman named Celine, had a heart rate of almost twice the normal beats per minute, and had close to no blood pressure at one point, said Erik. The boy, a four-year-old named Given, screamed in pain every time the right side of his body was jostled, and desperately needed to get fluids in him. “Due to the combination of shock, dehydration, poor lighting in the aircraft, as well as [lack of] room to maneuver, I was only able to get a small IV in him, which would not do enough,” said Erik. “He needed fluids badly so we attempted the one thing that no kid could resist...Mountain Dew. We had 3 cans of Mountain Dew onboard and gave them to his father and told him to make him drink no matter what.“
The plane finally landed at around 5:00 am in Philadelphia. All four patients had made it through the night, and were rushed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania.
Today, Celine is doing the best of all four patients, according to Naomi Rosenberg, a medical student and former PIH employee who helped to organize the med-evac. Although she had her leg amputated below the knee, she’s been working hard maintain her spirits and regain mobility through her physical therapy.
Doctors were also forced to perform amputations on the other two women, Berline and Sherline. In addition to the physical trauma of their injuries, both are even more concerned over those they left behind in Haiti. Berline, the mother of four small children, including two she was still breastfeeding at the time of the earthquake, has been desperate the hear how her children are and to let them know that she is still alive. PIH staff and partners have been trying to connect over the phone, but so far to no avail.
Sherline, a young woman who was orphaned as a teenager, has been equally desperate to contact her three sisters in Port-au-Prince. Doctors believe her recovery will probably be the longest—her crushed leg was amputated above the knee and she suffered acute renal failure following her first operation. She has been back to the operating room regularly since then to clean out her wounds.
Little Given suffered a badly broken his leg and has undergone at least five operations since he landed in the U.S. Today, doctors have scheduled another operation to graft skin and muscle from his good leg onto his injured one. His father has been able to contact his relatives in Haiti, and learned that Given’s twin brother is alive, but hungry and homeless.
Doctors hope that all four patients will be done with their major operations by early this week, with their then treatment focusing primarily on physical therapy.
An outpouring of support from a local church and Haitian families and PIH supporters in the Philadelphia area has helped to welcome the patients. They’ve been supplied with phone cards, clothing, and food, as well as Haitian Creole-speaking visitors for emotional support. PIH is also working to find a Creole-speaking mental health professional to help them cope with the trauma of their situations. Although alive and stable, all four will be living with the aftermath of the earthquake for years to come.
These four were able to access amazing care in the U.S., but there are literally thousands of other earthquake survivors that need surgical procedures that cannot be performed in their own country. Before the earthquake, PIH’s sister organization in Haiti, Zanmi Lasante, had been working to provide poor communities with access to basic surgical facilities. In the wake of the earthquake, continuing to strengthen surgical facilities throughout Haiti will remain a top priority.