Inside Haiti

A local reporter sifts through the rubble.

By Susan Phillips
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Feb. 2, 2010

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In limbo: An earthquake survivor is carried from a Jimaní operating room immediately after the amputation of his leg.Shock and awe:

Bloody footprints are scattered along the corridors of the General Melenciano Hospital in Jimaní, a town in the Dominican Republic bordering Haiti. Open wounds are often yellowish and the air bears the heavy smell of rotting flesh. Small children sit wide-eyed, some with a leg or an arm severed. A woman on the floor cries out in Creole for God and her mother. She reaches out to me and I hold her hand as the doctors examine her. The woman’s husband points to her foot and makes the universal sign for scissors. The doctors here refer to the amputations as “guillotine amputations,” because they use a hacksaw and local anesthesia to perform the procedure. The high number of amputations result in part from delay in medical care; crushed and broken bones go untreated to the point where infection sets in and amputations are needed to save patients lives from deadly infections.

It’s Thursday, January 21, nine days after the earthquake hit about 15 miles away in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Survivors continue to arrive on flatbed trucks at the one-story public hospital, hoping for medical treatment unavailable back home in the capital city. Soon after the earthquake hit, Jimaní became the back door route in and out of Haiti for thousands of people making their exodus, and thousands of others, including doctors, aid workers and journalists, trying to get inside the country. I was one of those trying to get in with a group of doctors, nurses and technicians from Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J. I got a call four days earlier from George Norcross, a board member of Cooper. “Susan,” he said, “are you ready to fly south?” Norcross said planes weren’t allowed to land in Port-au-Prince so he was using his company’s private jet to fly a group of doctors to Santo Domingo, in the neighboring Dominican Republic. From there they planned to make their way into Haiti. A newspaper reporter and I were to be embedded with the group.

At the airport we meet Jackie, the woman in charge of putting the doctors on a bus and getting them to a golf resort in Juan Dolio where they’d meet up with more medical staff flying in the next day. Then, they planned to travel by bus to the border town of Jimaní.

“Oooh,” says Jackie, as her looping eye-liner curls up to her temple. “What can I say about Jimaní? It’s Dominican but it’s Haitian, and they are all coming over the border now, it is very bad.” She reports that the prisoners who escaped from the jails of Port-au-Prince are all now hungry hordes at the gates of Jimaní, ready to rush in. “This is not like Mexico after a hurricane,” she says as she scrunches up her nose. “Very bad, very bad.”

Jimaní is a dusty, hot town high up in the mountains. It holds a military base in which a tent city has sprung up. Aid workers, U.N. officials, workers from the World Health Organization, USAID and Dominican soldiers all mix with volunteers in matching T-shirts and shoeless little boys trying to shine hiking boots made of nylon mesh. The little girls dig through the trash for empty water bottles. Later I find out these kids aren’t Dominican; They’re Haitian.

The lead doctors in the group spend several days paralyzed by their security concerns regarding travel into Haiti. They speak of their “intel” and say they won’t go anywhere without a U.N. escort. Once in Jimaní, though, they find plenty to do. Some choose to navigate the chaos at General Melenciano Hospital. They set out mending bones with what they refer to as “X-fixes,”—screws drilled into the bones and set with metal rods. Days after they arrive, the hallways are full of patients lying with what look like erector sets attached to their legs.

Other doctors set up camp at two additional facilities. At the Good Samaritan Hospital about a mile away, children, some without any parents or known relatives, lie on their backs with casts from their ankles to their waists. Their knees are permanently bent in plaster, and a stick keeps the feet apart. A small opening allows them to use a bedpan. Cardboard boxes prop up their feet. Daily dressing changes make grown men cry out in high-pitched, blood-curdling screams. At first, these screams make my stomach turn, but then they become simply a part of the auditory landscape of each day. I ask the patients how they made it to the border town, a two to three hour ride down congested, often pot-holed dirt roads from Port-au-Prince. They all say the same thing—by the grace of God.

About half a mile away, a church has been cleared out, its pews replaced with mattresses. It has become another post-op ward, run by an epidemiologist named Marta Butler. Butler peppers the Cooper team with questions and tells them she could use all the help she could get. Here, an eight-year-old girl is recovering from an above the knee amputation. She looks exhausted from crying. Her mother sits near by with bandages on her head. She feels guilty, she says, because her daughter begged her to go visit her aunt in the countryside just days before the earthquake struck. She had told her daughter no, she had to go to school. A Cooper nurse named Nancy Cadet later says the girl is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Every time one of the doctors comes close to her, Cadet says, the child thinks they’re going to chop off another part of her body. So she screams for God to help her, while her mother waits outside, weeping.

Back at the military base, helicopters fly in with important-looking people who disappear into one office or another. One day, it’s the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires for the Dominican Republic. There’s a press office set up with electricity, wi-fi, and a flush toilet. It’s a godsend. At night, I sleep out on the heliport, and each morning an armed soldier comes and tells me a chopper is about to land. It looks and sounds like MASH.

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Comments 1 - 2 of 2
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1. Cin said... on Feb 2, 2010 at 08:23PM

“Thanks for your story. I leave for Jimani on Saturday for a couple of weeks. I very much appreciated your insight. Good job and God bless.”

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2. Pierre F. Lherisson said... on Feb 3, 2010 at 06:06PM

“This has been a daunting task.”

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