UCMC team relieves doctors in devastated Haiti

“It’s hard to wrap your brain around the level of devastation,” said a doctor who landed in Chicago last night, one of the original eight staffers who left last month.

By Asher Klein

Twenty-two doctors, nurses, and specialists affiliated with the University of Chicago are traveling to Haiti to replace the first team sent there two weeks ago.

“It’s hard to wrap your brain around the level of devastation,” said a doctor who landed in Chicago last night, one of the original eight staffers who left last month.

Over 200 University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) staffers had volunteered by Friday to go to Haiti, according to a UCMC press release, and 22 will have arrived in Haiti by next Thursday. UCMC is working with other medical schools in Chicago to ensure hospitals at home don’t lose too many staffers at once.

Eighteen physicians, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, a pharmacist, and an administrative worker will replace groups in the small town of Fond Parisien, near the Dominican border, and a team working in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, the release said. Team leader and emergency medicine specialist Dr. Christian Theodisis will remain in Haiti until the end of February, a UCMC spokesman said. An assistant professor of medicine, Theodisis was one of the first UCMC doctors on the ground.

An additional group of four plastic surgeons already scheduled to go to the Dominican Republic will perform reconstructive surgery on patients flown in from Haiti.

Dr. Heather Costello, an attending physician at UCMC–affiliate North Shore’s emergency room, arrived in Chicago last night.

“It was frustrating and horribly sad and overwhelming,” Costello said in a phone interview. “It’s unbelievable; it’s hard to wrap your brain around the level of devastation. It’s just thousands upon thousands of homeless people with injuries and no water.”

Doctors worked 10 to 14-hour shifts on between 350 and 500 people a day, Costello said. They worked without ventilators, respirators, or CAT scans, and X-rays worked only half the time. She then compared it to an extreme case of a city with an overburdened health care system.

“You still have the general population, so you would see gunshot wounds, heart attacks, the same stuff you see here,” she said. “But then we were seeing terrible wound infections. There were still people two or three weeks out with open fractures that hadn’t been treated yet.”

With no outpatient care or a steady supply of food and water, “the hope of [patients] staying well after we tried to fix them up was not very encouraging,” Costello said. Even when doctors deemed patients well enough to be released, they often had no home to return to.

“The infrastructure was bad to begin with, but now there’s just none,” Costello said.

Nevertheless, Costello’s patients were “incredibly grateful and incredibly patient and incredibly hopeful, which was astounding to us, because externally it looked so hopeless,” she said.

“It’s unbelievable how in the midst of all that, they’re singing gospel songs, smiling, and thanking you for whatever you can do.”

Fluent in French and experienced in third-world medical techniques, Costello felt she’d “been training for this,” and signed up. She worked at the University Hospital in Port-au-Prince, a site run by the International Medical Corps. Doctors worked in tents outside the structurally damaged hospital in tents that reached almost 110 degrees, she said.

She added that between 50 and 150 of the hospital’s staff had died in the earthquake, but exact numbers were unknown as excavation and the recovery of bodies had only begun Saturday.

Costello suggested doctors and nurses being sent to the country should be briefed and debriefed much more thoroughly than her team was.

“There were a lot of people there who had never done any international medicine, had never been to a disaster. I worry about their psyches,” she said.