Haiti: After the earthquake, a surgical team works nonstop
Xavier Kernizan, a Doctors Without Borders orthopedic surgeon, in the operating room at L'Hopital Saint Antoine in Jeremie. In less than a week, the Doctors Without Borders surgical team has treated 54 patients for injuries from the earthquake, many of whom come from the surrounding region. © Steven Aristil
What did you do the day of the earthquake?
I was returning home from Doctors Without Borders' Tabarre hospital and I felt the shaking on the road. At first I didn't think it was a very powerful earthquake. It was afterward that I started to receive photos and images of what happened. I saw an informal discussion in a Doctors Without Borders chat group that we could send a team, and I told our medical activity manager that if Doctors Without Borders needed an orthopedic surgeon, I was available, and he said we would leave at 2 p.m.
Everything was ready then and we left on the road for Les Cayes. The most stressful point was to pass through the Martissant neighborhood to reach the road to the southern region affected by the earthquake. There are armed clashes in the area, and we heard worrying reports that raised our stress—for our safety, and not because of the earthquake.
People walking in front of a destroyed building in a street of Les Cayes. © Steven Aristil
General view of one of the rooms at the general hospital in Les Cayes. Doctors Without Borders is supporting the hospital with supplies. © Steven Aristil
People gathering water at one of the water points at Croix Marti, an area of Les Cayes city. © Steven Aristil
What was the situation that you found in the South?
The first place we arrived was the town of Les Cayes. It was very impressive. It brought me back to the earthquake in 2010, because it was practically the same kind of destruction—houses completely collapsed, rubble in the streets. There were places where we could not pass at all, where we had to find another way. We spent our first night in Les Cayes, before moving on; a colleague of ours was already supporting the operating theater at the hospital there.
The next morning we left for Jérémie. Before we reached the Riviere Glace, we saw that the road was blocked by a landslide. We already knew that the road was blocked, but no one could tell us whether a car could squeeze through the rocks there. We exited the vehicle and took photos of how rocks blocked the road for at least a kilometer. Then we had a little scare because we were close to the cliff, and then there was an aftershock, and a few stones came down. We turned back to Les Cayes, and finally we took a helicopter to reach Jérémie.
A medical team, including two surgeons and an operating room nurse, was able to travel to Jérémie on August 15 and began working in St. Antoine’s hospital, completing 10 surgeries on 16 and 17 of August. Doctors Without Borders brought medical supplies, including sterilization material, for the medical facility. © Steven Aristil
How did you start working here?
The first difficulty we had was to make contact, to know who we should see, because no one knew who we were and what we were here to do. It took a day and a half before we could really work. The personnel at Saint Antoine Hospital did extraordinary work with the few staff and resources they had. Many patients were already cleaned and their wounds were debrided when we arrived. Some had external fixators to set broken bones, and some patients had already been referred to Port-au-Prince by air. A number of doctors who were originally from this region also returned from their jobs elsewhere to support the hospital.
So when we arrived, we asked, "What can we do for you?" We picked up where they started. And so we operated on many patients. Sunday we had four patients, Monday we had nine patients, then 10 to 12 patients per day. Generally we left the hospital between 11 p.m. and midnight, in order to see the maximum number of patients. So we are shrinking the pool of patients waiting for treatment, waiting for surgery.
Now are you seeing patients for follow-up surgeries?
Yes, we are starting follow-ups. The majority of our patients are now ones that we have already seen, coming back for a debridement, a new surgery or a cast. But there are still people from the back-country, where there is no help, who are coming to Jérémie for emergency care.
As of Aug. 20, Doctors Without Borders surgical team in Jérémie has treated 54 patients for injuries suffered in the Aug. 14 earthquake, such as bone fractures. Thirty-six of these patients underwent surgery, while others received casts or splints. Doctors Without Borders also provides surgical care at its Tabarre hospital in Port-au-Prince; so far, more than 45 patients have been admitted there with injuries from the earthquake, in addition to patients treated in the emergency room and discharged or referred elsewhere.