The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 19, 2010


Surgeon was committed to Haiti even before the earthquake

Editor’s note: Dr. Rosemary Duda of Concord Street is an Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and a Surgical Oncologist with Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center. In response to our questions, she shared some of her volunteer experiences with the Mosquito.

My commitment to Haiti developed a while before the earthquake. I am a surgical oncologist who had been helping a regional hospital develop a women’s cancer program and I had already been scheduled to arrive the week following the earthquake, so I was already packed with supplies and ready to go. The hardest part was finding transportation to Port-au-Prince. Once there I connected with Medishare/University of Miami tent hospital for 1.5 weeks where I was in charge of the pediatric wound care, returned home for two weeks, then joined Project Hope for three more weeks. My experiences reflect the differences in time spent in Haiti, with most of the acute surgical care of the earthquake victims being performed at Medishare/UM and aboard USNS Comfort. By the time I arrived at Hôpital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) we were in the relatively more chronic aspects of medical care.

Dr. Rosemary Duda comforts a young patient in the Medishare field hospital. (Courtesy photo)

What were the most striking differences among the three venues? One of the most striking differences was the volume – the noise. In the tent hospital, my operating table was by the entrance to the pediatric unit. The volume steadily increased at daybreak and by 8 a.m. it was at a fever pitch, sometimes making it impossible to hear myself think let alone communicate with the rest of the team. And it stayed like that until very late at night.

The feeling at the tent hospital was one of organized chaos. There was constant motion – patients were being evacuated to us from distant locations and we were evacuating seriously ill patients to Miami or the United States Naval Ship Comfort. It was like a revolving door. There was an intense and constant sense of urgency and a constant pull to respond to multiple requests and situations simultaneously. Only after the end of the third week following the earthquake did we feel as if we could actually spare a minute to look up to see the network newspeople or sports figures or movie stars who visited the site. That’s when I felt that the situation overall was improving. We were seeing fewer new earthquake injuries and more patients referred to us with a less urgent nature.

The experience on the USNS Comfort was completely different. While busy, it was an environment with a much more controlled flow of patients, sufficient supplies and medicines and of course, an operating room with real walls!

Hôpital Albert Schweitzer is located about 2 hours north of Port-au-Prince. We treated many patients who were victims of the earthquake, along with patients with general acute and chronic medical and surgical conditions. Supplies and medicines were meager but the atmosphere was vibrant. A very special service provided at HAS was prosthetics for the amputees. A team of engineers and specialists set up a prosthetic lab and were fitting patients with their new legs. What an incredible difference this will make for many. The joy on the faces of those with the new limbs reminded us that life will go on for them.

Have you done other disaster relief work? I have done many medical mission trips to several different countries. This experience will always keep me grounded in the fact that people are resilient, especially the children. In the face of a disaster and a loss of an eye or limb or other injury, the children can still play and laugh – a lesson for all of us.

Do you think that the international aid at its current level will be enough to bring Haiti to its feet again? Haiti was a desperately poor country before the earthquake. The Haitian people had little and now they have even less. It is my fervent hope that the leaders of Haiti use this tragedy as the opportunity to reassess the needs of the people and address them fairly and without prejudice. I hope that the leaders have the vision necessary to move the country forward and utilize wisely and unselfishly the many resources offered them.

As Americans, we can be proud of the support and work and donations we made collectively. Our military personnel were superb both in the field hospital and on the [USNS] Comfort and worked alongside the civilians in a very supportive and collegial manner. What I hope is that we don’t forget Haiti as the weeks and months pass. It will be important for us to see progress without corruption.

Is there any incident that really summarizes your time in Haiti? That will stay with you? There were many very nice experiences and some very touching moments. I think one of my fondest memories will be of a little boy named David. He suffered an amputation of the right arm, right leg and nose as well as many wounds that were slow to heal. He had his nose reconstructed by the Navy plastic surgeon and was a very handsome child. David was working out how to get around in his wheelchair, write his name with his left hand and to dress himself unassisted. However, he was really quite shy about his amputated arm.

As I changed his dressings and saw the sad look on his face while removing the arm bandage, I impulsively kissed the little stump and he gave me such a big smile I will never forget. At that moment I was certain David will conquer this handicap too. The last time I saw him, he was being transferred to a local hospital and he waved goodbye with this shortened arm, without a dressing. He was ready to face his new world.∆

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito