By SARA CLARKSON Staff Writer
The Hinsdale Orthopaedic team which was in Haiti for eight days last week returned late on Sunday night to a feast of salads and long, very long, hot and steamy showers. On Monday morning, not even 12 hours after returning, the trio of orthopaedic surgeon Steven S. Louis, M.D., physician’s assistant Katey O’Connell and orthopaedic and surgical assistant Ann Whirl, were back at the Hinsdale Orthopaedics offices, running through their pictures, talking about their showers and individual patients who had affected them.
To return to neatly ordered Hinsdale and Clarendon Hills after the rubble, frustrating medical cases, strict supervision, ice cold showers and frequent power outages of Haiti was a relief. To walk into a physically sound structure to conduct their healing work was almost like a revelation because such a commonplace activity here is not at all commonplace there anymore.
The St. Francis de Sales Hospital in Port-au-Prince where they volunteered was essentially destroyed during the Jan. 12 earthquake. Whole floors of the hospital collapsed down one onto another onto another with only a few spaces left standing and barely stable enough to continue to be used. One such space became an operating room, with a screen dividing it in two so that one side could be used for general surgery and other side for orthopaedic surgery.
The operating room and the various “wards” — essentially large tented areas — were just feet away from where the largest part of the hospital collapsed onto itself. At least 50 people, including nurses, doctors and patients are still buried in that debris. Their screams and cries, according to the stories the Hinsdale group heard, continued for up to a week after the earthquake and then stopped. A powerful stench serves as a reminder that part of the hospital is now burial ground.
“You get used to it fairly quickly,” wrote O’Connell in one of her daily emails sent home, but she was only talking about the smell not the idea.
The Hinsdale Orthapaedics group, however, was there to serve the living, and the day had too few working hours to accomplish what they would have liked to. For one thing, the group was severely restricted in how long they could work. They were delivered to the hospital by 8 a.m. every morning in a racing and raging convoy that O’Connell compared to a roller coaster ride.
Some four to five cars took the entire team from the house that Catholic Relief Service and the University of Maryland Shock Treatment Center, the sponsoring organizations, rented for the dozen or so medical volunteers of which the Hinsdale group was a part. This convoy of locked cars stopped infrequently if at all, speeding the entire 45 minutes. The reason for the speed was security. The entire group was held under not just lock and key but also protected with armed guards. Haiti has hosted a few kidnappings of foreigners and Catholic Relief Services was not going to allow its volunteers to become victims.
Promptly at 4:30 p.m. the medical volunteers were to end their work, get back into the convoy and head back to the house on the hill whether their work was finished or not. Louis, O’Connell and Whirl said that for the eight and a half hours they were working, they were working. They had no time to eat, no time to use the bathroom and no time to chat.
One case particularly disturbed to them. A young girl, the only child of a family to survive the earthquake, had a crush injury on her ankle, which was not only dislocated by exposed to the bone and had been for weeks. Every day the wound had to be dressed and cleaned, a painful and malodorous process. Louis and O’Connell, through translators, desperately wanted to convince the family to amputate the foot, but the family was against it until the Hinsdale experts made the family clean and dress the wound themselves. The girl’s screams went on for 10 minutes. After that, the family gave permission for the amputation.
In eight days, Louis said he performed 15 surgeries — he might do seven during a regular week here — and of those most were to clean up infections left over from a previous surgery. This was not the sort of thing he sees routinely in his regular practice.
“I’ve never been so emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted in my life,” said Louis.
In fact, once the Hinsdale group got to the Port-au-Prince airport and sat in the air conditioned lounge to await their departing flight, it was the first air conditioning they had felt in a week. Suddenly, the exhaustion caught up to just about all of them and they found themselves sound asleep.
“What don’t I appreciate?” said Whirl about being home again on Monday. “Like being able to have a piece of fruit, being able to brush your teeth without bottled water, like having the freedom of being able to come and go and as I want.”
O’Connell is looking forward to getting back to normal life, and Louis is anxious for another opportunity to return in two months or so, if possible. Despite the devastation on a scale photos can’t convey, they found some satisfaction in the work and the smiles they received.
“Dr. Louis and I were pleasantly surprised today when a patient who we’ve called ‘the grumpy one’ and who even tried to bite us earlier this week, actually asked a translator to have us to in and give her a hug good-bye. She even said ‘Thank you’ in English,” wrote O’Connell in her last e-mail home.