By Don Grigas, dgrigas@mysuburbanlife.com
Suburban Life Publications
Hinsdale, IL —

The first thing Dr. Steven Louis noticed upon his return trip to Haiti as part of a volunteer medical team was the quality of the air.

“When I first visited there in March — less than two months after the earthquake — the stench of decaying bodies hung in the air,” said Louis, who visited the island country recently to provide medical services to those in need.

“Back then dead bodies were still trapped beneath the rubble. On our most recent trip, you immediately noticed the odor of dead bodies was gone,” said Louis, an orthopedic surgeon at Hinsdale-based Hinsdale Orthopedic Associates, who specializes in trauma and complex fractures.

Louis was one of five Hinsdale Orthopedic staff members who traveled to Port au Prince from June 12 to 20 to provide volunteer medical services to those still suffering from the aftermath of the earthquake that killed 250,000 in January.

Volunteer teams have rotated weekly since shortly after the earthquake, but as the program nears its conclusion — the last team is scheduled to serve in early August — the need for medical services is exceeded by the need to train doctors and nurses for continued care.

“I think the challenge now is in trying to build a sustainable system in Haiti so that others are trained to carry on,” said Dr. Kenneth Schiffman, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in upper extremities.

Schiffman said international volunteer medical teams are providing key services once offered by local doctors and nurses who, in large part, are no longer there.

Following the earthquake, which destroyed the three hospitals serving Port au Prince, many doctors and nurses left the island to practice in the United States.

Medical efforts are hindered not only by a lack of local medical staff, but by a supply system that is all but non-existent, doctors said.

One day Louis had to cancel 12 surgeries scheduled for the following two days due to a lack of sterilization equipment.

“We eventually learned that ‘m.d.’ stands for ‘make do’. We were practicing McGyver medicine,” Louis said.

Despite a lack of some of the most basic items, Dr. Robyn Vargo was able to perform an amputation of a woman’s lower leg and provided the patient with an improvised prosthetic.

“We had brought a prosthesis with us, and we were able to use it on a woman who needed an amputation of the left leg just below the knee,” said Vargo, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in foot and ankle surgery. “The problem was the prosthetic was designed for the right leg, not the left.”

Vargo was able to jury-rig the prosthetic to be used as a left leg.

“We just shaved it down and adjusted it so it fit into the woman’s left shoe,” Vargo said.

Louis said the satisfaction of helping those in need was tempered by the reality that patients in a depressed country like Haiti will never be served to the same level as those in the United States.

“There was one young girl, about 9 years old, who became attached to us the first time I was there in March. We knew there was something wrong with her then, but couldn’t diagnose it at the time. On our return we discovered she had leukemia,” said Louis.

The girl could not be sent to the United States for care that could have given her a chance to live because she could not obtain a visa, and she died while Louis was in the hospital.

“She died there in front of me,” said Louis.

Some of the other obstacles foreign medical teams face in Haiti are increased risk of infections, patients whose superstitions sometimes hinder necessary medical operations, and less than ideal hospital conditions.

The five-story St. Francois de Sales Hospital was all but leveled in the earthquake, and the existing operating room resembles the inside of a cinder block auto repair shop.

Overall the situation in Haiti continues to improve, but progress seems to come at a snail’s pace, doctors said.

Work days for the teams began at about 7 a.m. and concluded each night at dusk, with armed escorts guiding them through the streets of Haiti to their private residences.

“We would caravan back and forth in vehicles, not stopping, going through red lights with the emergency vehicle lights going,” Vargo said.

When we got there authorities gave us instructions on what to do in the event we were ever kidnaped,” Vargo said. “Some of the experience was harrowing, and you knew it was dangerous. As a woman I felt a little more vulnerable.”

Despite the obstacles, the team came away with positive images of Haiti and its people.

“What is amazing is how durable the people of Haiti are,” said Louis. “They have tremendous faith.”