Operation Haiti

Meet a surgeon who found hope in the devastation of an earthquake.

- Posted on May 7, 2010

The Aftermath

I opened my eyes, not feeling rested at all.

Was it morning? In the windowless operating room of King’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince, days seemed to never really begin or end.

I crawled out of my sleeping bag and stood, stretching out the kinks from sleeping on the floor. It was January 20, 2010, my third morning in Haiti. I came as soon as I could after the January 12 earthquake, confident in my 20 years of experience as a surgeon, certain I could help, that I was answering God’s distinct call. But what I’d found was misery and desperation, a brokenness no doctor could heal.

I felt the floor rock slightly. Then, the walls began moving, buckling. Screaming, from outside the OR. “Run! Get out!” Panicked patients poured into the hallway, running, hobbling, crawling for the entrance one floor below us. Family members pushed patients in their beds, carried them on boards, any way they could. It was a jarring aftershock.

But in the terrified faces around me I saw something more. They were reliving the horror of January 12.

I’d been to Haiti on medical mission trips more than two dozen times. It was the people who kept me coming back. Their incredible strength and perseverance filled me with such hope.

Now, all around me in this 70-bed hospital was pain and suffering. And each day brought only more, victims arriving by the hundreds, limbs crushed beyond repair, infected, gangrene setting in—looking to me and the other docs for what little healing we could provide.

Outside the entrance some patients milled about in nervous throngs, mixing with new people arriving that morning. Others collapsed to the ground. Word finally came that it was safe to go back inside.

“The aftershock is over,” I yelled over the buzzing crowd. “Please return to your rooms.” Other doctors made similar pleas, but the patients didn’t move except to shake their heads. For them, the hospital was no longer a place of refuge.

We walked through the crowd, writing names and injuries on surgical tape and putting it around patients’ arms, urging them not to leave the grounds. I’d treated so many of them. The woman who had lost her family. The preacher whose wife was dying. Men, women and children whose crushed limbs I’d amputated.

I’d done all I could, but the need was overwhelming. For most, I couldn’t even get meds for their pain. Their moans filled my ears, drowning out the hope that coming to Haiti always held. If only I could feel that hope again.

I remembered an engineering student I’d treated the day before. He’d been taking a test at the university when the quake hit. His right arm was badly fractured, infected. Amputation was the only option.

“There must be some chance,” he said. The strength of his faith touched me. I cleaned and dressed the wound and said, “Let’s look at it again tomorrow.” It seemed impossible that there’d be any change. But I knew we both needed something to cling to—if even for a day.

At the hospital entrance a doctor called to the crowd. “We’ve all been through a terrible shock. I would ask you to please join me in prayer.”

“Dear God,” he said, “you know everything that we’re going through. Please protect this hospital and help it to be a haven for all who come here.”

The patients lifted their heads. There was quiet, a sense of calm. Remarkably, some people trickled back into the hospital. But for others the fear quickly returned to their faces. They refused to go near the building. I understood.

I went inside, back to the OR. Soon the day’s surgeries would begin, aides carrying patients in one after the other. Even with three teams operating almost constantly, there was no way to keep up.

I scrubbed in. On the operating table lay a young man, his leg mangled. There had been no time to mentally prepare for this patient. Focus, I thought. I have to focus. He grabbed my hand. “Take care of me,” he pleaded.

“You know we’re going to remove your leg?” I asked.

He nodded quickly, bravely. “Take care of me,” he said again.

“We’re going to give you a shot in your spine,” I said. “You won’t feel anything. It’s going to be okay. I need you to be strong.” Ten minutes passed, the young man’s body relaxing. I took a deep breath, clearing my mind. Carefully we began cutting through his leg, attending to each step, the surgical team working in concert. But even as I operated I felt a sense of helplessness. What could I do for this young man’s deeper wounds, his spiritual pain?

We made the final cut, closed the wound and bandaged the stump that remained. Aides carried the young man to a room for recovery. Within minutes a girl took his place, her face half burned away, her mother lost in the quake. I took a deep breath…

It was afternoon before I was able to break from surgery to check on patients. I went to the clinic in search of the young engineering student. Please, God, let his arm be better, I prayed. Please.

I spied him immediately. He held the arm out toward me, a nervous smile unable to hide the worry on his face. “It’s better, yes?” he said.

I removed the dressing and my heart sank. “The damage is just too severe,” I said. “We’re going to need to amputate. There is no other way.”

Tears filled his eyes. “It was my dream to be an engineer,” he said. “Now I have no more dreams.”

“No,” I said, pushing back against his despair—and my own. “You can’t give up hope. Dreams are always possible. You can still be an engineer. You can be anything you want!” He nodded, but could not be consoled. I turned away. Another patient was waiting.

I was exhausted—completely and totally spent—by the time I finished the last surgery of the evening. How many had there been? Each day we started earlier and ended later. I remembered the chaos of the morning. Had the patients ever come back inside the hospital? I went down to the entrance and peered out the doors. Dozens of people lay on hard wooden pallets. My heart ached for them, but what comfort could I provide?

It was all I could do to get back to the OR. Now, I wanted only to collapse, to let go of the emotion inside of me. I climbed into my sleeping bag. But sleep wouldn’t come.

I saw the face of the engineering student. Then they were all there, the dozens of patients I’d treated, flooding into my consciousness. I’d never felt so utterly, desperately sad, an inescapable grief. There was never time to grieve. My body started shaking, as if it were being battered by waves. I couldn’t hold it inside any longer and the tears came like a flood.

I must’ve drifted off because a noise woke me. Pounding. Definitely not a dream. The sound was coming from far away, but it was a loud, urgent hammering. Someone was beating on the doors downstairs. They needed help! Two doctors and I ran to the entrance. We flung open the doors. There was a couple right outside. “My wife,” the man said, “she is in labor. We had nowhere else to go. Please help us.”

The woman lay on a concrete slab, her husband supporting her back. All around us were the patients who had fled the hospital with the aftershocks the morning before, lying on their pallets.

“Our first four children died at birth,” the husband said. “Please. We just want our baby to live.”

One look and I could see that birth was imminent. There was no time to take the mother inside. “Breathe,” I said to her. “Try to relax. We’re going to do this right here, but everything is going to be fine. Now I need you to push.”

She took a shallow breath, then a larger one. She began moaning. “That’s good,” I said. “Keep pushing. The baby’s coming. Just a few minutes more. You’re doing great.” The other patients were sitting up, looking at us, watching our every move. The mother’s wails filled the air.

“Something’s wrong,” the husband asked. “You have to help. Please, don’t let this baby die.”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” I said. “Just a little bit longer. Keep holding your wife. You’ll see. Everything’s going to okay.” Please, I prayed silently. Please, Lord, let me be right. Let this new life be healthy.

The mother was shaking, pushing, her husband’s hold tightening. The slightest hint of a tiny crown emerged. It was happening! “Push,” I yelled over the mother’s screams. I held the head, felt the slippery warmth in my hand. Then, bit by bit, a tiny, perfect baby boy slid into our waiting arms.

I quickly cleaned him. He greeted us with a good loud cry. A new life begun…wonderful, miraculous life amid all this tragedy, the seeding of new hope.

I cut the cord and took the baby off to the side to tie off the remnant. I looked into his deep brown eyes. There was something about them, so trusting and full of wonder. “Hey, buddy,” I said. “You’re beautiful.”

I nestled the woman’s son to her breast and he drank hungrily. His father raised his hands in thanksgiving. “Praise God!” he exclaimed. There was murmuring as his words echoed through the crowd. Then a rush of sound. The patients. They were applauding, cheering, their faces full of joy.

That feeling inside me. It was what I remembered from my earlier trips here. It went against everything I’d experienced in the last three days, but in that moment I knew there was a brighter future ahead for Haiti, that her people would not be forgotten.

There was much work to be done. Work that would take years—and the efforts of many—to accomplish. I didn’t know what lay ahead, only God could see that. But I could feel hope all around me.

The earthquake had brought destruction and death, unfathomable tragedy to a nation that had already endured more than its share. But even it couldn’t extinguish the light that continually pushes back against the darkness and each day brings new miracles into the world, miracles of life.

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