What They Saw in Haiti: Physicians Tell Their Stories

Physicians everywhere have responded to the medical and humanitarian crisis in Haiti. The following post is compiled from interviews by physician-author Lisa Gruenberg, M.D.

On January 12, plastic surgeon Stephen Sullivan, M.D., checked his phone messages before boarding a flight from Florida back to Boston. The last one read, “So sorry to hear about Haiti.”

Plastic surgeon Helena Taylor, M.D., changes a compressive dressing on a Haitian woman with a fractured humerus.

“That’s how I first learned about what happened,” Dr. Sullivan said on January 25, having just returned from eight days of medical relief efforts in Cange, Haiti. He was there under the auspices of Boston-based Partners In Health (PIH), which has been bringing modern medicine to Haiti for 20 years and currently works in collaboration with the Ministry of Health to support 12 hospitals and clinics there.

Ironically, just before receiving the message about the earthquake, Dr. Sullivan had spoken at a combined plastics and orthopedics conference, asking for more involvement among orthopedic surgeons in PIH activities.

“We were at a conference asking orthopedic surgeons to be more involved, and then suddenly there was this huge event in Haiti that would require their involvement,” Dr. Sullivan said.

Dr. Sullivan had spent 2009 working as a global surgery fellow in Cange, the location of PIH’s first Haitian hospital, “Cange was like a home to me,” Dr. Sullivan said. “There is no way I wouldn’t be back there right away to help.”

Accompanied by his wife, plastic surgeon Helena Taylor, M.D., and 23 others, Dr. Sullivan was flown by private jet to Haiti on January 15. “Our trip went like clockwork,” he said, noting that “PIH has the advantage of being on the ground in Haiti already, and they are very well connected.”

Attending to a Haitian woman with a leg fracture in the village of Cange are (left to right) a Haitian nurse; Thierry Pauyo, a Haitian student at Harvard Medical School; Newton-based orthopedic surgeon Alfred W. Hanmer, M.D. and surgeon  Robert L. Sheridan, M.D., of the Shriners’ Burn Institute in Boston.  Photo by Stephen Sullivan, MD.

Meanwhile, Robert Sheridan, M.D., chief of the burn surgery service at the Boston Shriners’ Hospital and former director of the trauma service at Mass General, was already in Cange helping train Haitian colleagues when the earthquake hit. As injured patients from Port-au-Prince, 35 miles to the southwest, started arriving in Cange, the hospital community rallied with Dr. Sheridan to address the unexpected influx.

Using only physical exam skills (the quake had knocked out X-ray equipment and lab capabilities), they triaged the worst injuries for the operating room. Haitians and Americans worked side-by-side to relieve compartment syndromes, repair degloving injuries, and deal with fractures as best they could.

They performed three laparotomies and many amputations in crushed, devitalized extremities. The first wave of patients was acutely injured, Dr. Sheridan recalled. In subsequent days, patients presented with septic crushed extremities, rhabdomyolysis, multiple fractures, and renal failure.

 “We arrived in Cange at 9:00 p.m. and were in the OR at 10:00,” Dr. Taylor recalled. The teams Drs. Sullivan and Taylor worked with operated on more than 100 patients during their eight-day stay in Cange. Despite the surge of seriously injured patients, there were no cases of lethal sepsis because wounds were treated so expeditiously.

“For me, it was an incredible privilege to work with the Haitian and PIH staff and with Drs. [Alfred] Hanmer, Sullivan, and Taylor,” Dr. Sheridan said.

Dr. Taylor emphasizes the need for a long-term relief strategy in Haiti. ”The acute phase — dealing with rescue and treatment of abdominal injuries, wounds, sepsis, and amputations — is coming to a close,” she said. “The next phase, caring for displaced populations and closing and grafting wounds, will take months. The psychological and physical rehabilitation will take years of work. We hope others will join us.”

Lisa Gruenberg, M.D.

Photos by Stephen Sullivan, M.D. To read the captions, hover over the photos with your mouse or pointer.

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