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Local doctors tell of ‘humbling and gratifying’ service in Haiti

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Oplan Evans displays his boots, a gift from Dr. Alan Gwertzman Dr. Alan Gwertzman

Oplan Evans has a new pair of boots — and his arms and legs.

As Dr. Alan Gwertzman tells it, the Haitian boy was in tears as he waited to be brought into the operating room in Hôpital Sacré Coeur in Milot, about 70 miles north of Port-au-Prince.

Gwertzman, chief anesthesiologist at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, had come to Haiti, like two colleagues from Holy Name, to help in the medical emergency caused by last month’s devastating earthquake.

He had seen that “the Haitian people are very stoic. These kids, even though they had open wounds, horrible fractures, did not show much emotion — but as they got to the holding room before the operating room you could see that they were scared.

“It dawned on me,” Gwertzman told The Jewish Standard last Thursday, “that these children could see other children and adults go into the operating room with four limbs, but unfortunately many would leave with less.”

Oplan’s “injuries did not require that,” and Gwertzman “promised him that would not happen.”

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Drs. Alan Gwertzman, left, and Timothy Finley flank Holy Name CEO Michael Maron at last Thursday’s briefing at the Teaneck hospital on the medical emergency in Haiti. Nicole Russell

This was his first visit to the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, and he had noticed that “most of these children did not have shoes.” That gave him an idea.

“My boots were fairly new; they were a bright yellow and hard to miss.” Oplan had eyed the boots admiringly, “so I said I promise you will not get your leg amputated, and as a guarantee, before I leave … I will give you my boots. The morning that I was leaving I brought him the yellow boots and he was very happy.”

But for every boy like Oplan, “there are thousands” still in desperate need of medical help, said Dr. Timothy Finley, who with Gwertzman briefed staff and press at Holy Name last Thursday. Being able to provide that help — or some of it — was “very, very humbling and gratifying,” said Finley, an anesthesiologist whose recent stint in Haiti was his seventh.

In a subsequent interview with the Standard, Finley said that Milot had suffered “nothing as severe as Port-au-Prince,” and that Sacré Coeur “became a port in the storm for Haitians who could not go anywhere else. The Navy and the Coast Guard and French helicopters were constantly delivering patients” to be cared for there.

Unfortunately, the Milot hospital, which has had a relationship with Holy Name for many years and was used to handling 30 to 40 cases a week, was having to deal with 30 to 40 cases a day. Many of the injured worsened or died because of inadequate facilities, equipment, and supplies.

“The only monitor in three out of five operating rooms was your hand,” Finley told the standing-room-only gathering of mainly medical professionals. “We ran out of things like morphine. Had we had it, people would not have screamed all night.”

And “the smell of gangrene, blood everywhere, the chaos, was overwhelming.”

To combat the chaos, Finley instituted a regimen to run the hospital, and it is continuing to be followed.

“I saw the best of American medicine down there,” Finley told the gathering. “I’m proud to be an American, proud to be a doctor, proud to be a Holy Name physician because of its years of support” in Haiti.

“For $500,000, he continued, “we can build a better hospital, or at least [we can] put oxygen there. I’m asking for contributions. If we can raise this,” he said, “they’ve agreed they’ll call it Holy Name.”

He has donated $10,000 for Sacré Coeur and Michael Maron, the hospital’s president and CEO, told the gathering that he would personally double that gift. Also, Jane Fielding Ellis, the hospital’s vice president for marketing, public relations, and community, announced that the staff had raised $10,000.

“We’re hoping that people will respond,” Finley told the Standard. He said that one pressing need is for a permanent oxygen source. “A company has a unit for $250,000,” he related, “but is willing to sell it to us for $150,000.”

As for that hoped-for Holy Name Hospital in Haiti, he said, “We may try to ask some larger construction companies to help us in building — donating labor, materials, even money.”

 
 

Local lawyer expands burn network to Haiti

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Sam Davis, right, and Dr. Tom Bojko are pictured with Presume and Roselyn DeHart at the For Haiti with Love burn clinic.

To most people, the January earthquake in Haiti had no connection to burn injuries – after all, it was not a fire. But the connection made sense to Sam Davis. The Teaneck-based attorney, founding director of Burn Advocates Network, helps equip and staff 22 burn camps and centers throughout the United States and one in Israel.

“A lot of our work is dedicated to helping burn survivors, so we did research and found out that because the standard [Haitian] method of cooking is using hibachis, hundreds of kids were burned when hibachi stoves went flying into the air with hot oil in them,” said Davis. “And kids with even minor burns were dying from infection because there was no supply chain for medicines and no facility left standing that was doing skin grafting; the biggest burn facility in Port-au-Prince had been destroyed.”

That left only a three-treatment table burn clinic called For Haiti with Love, founded 40 years ago by a Jewish man from Indianapolis and run by his adopted daughter, Haitian nurse Roselyn DeHart, and her husband Presume, a police officer. Its building sports a large Star of David on its façade.

“You would have a mother carrying a sick child for 70 miles, getting rides where she could, because this was the only place to get free care for burns,” said Davis. “Parents and children started essentially camping out and overwhelming this little facility.”

Ironically, DeHart’s dad had arranged spina bifida surgery for her many years ago at a Shriners Children’s Hospital, and — through Davis — Shriners surgeons, therapists, and dieticians are now helping DeHart treat burn survivors in Haiti.

Davis stumbled upon the clinic in March, while he was running a general BAN relief drive for Haiti. Through the generosity of the Israeli-owned Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, BAN and Cooper University Hospital in Camden shipped close to 50 tons of food and medical supplies out of Bayonne to the Royal Caribbean port in Labadee, North Haiti. Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck came to Bayonne with a check from his congregation to help defray costs.

“Our slogan was ‘From the dock to the doctor in six days,’” said Davis, a member of Temple Beth El in Closter.

That was not an easy goal to meet. Because the Haitian airport was shut down, he hopped on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, got off at Labadee to receive the first shipment, and escorted the goods over treacherous mountain passes with the help of a Nepalese U.N. convoy. Along the way, Davis discovered For Haiti with Love just five miles from Labadee in Cap Haitien, and mounted an effort to staff and stock the facility.

Though he had intended to focus on burn victims, Davis could not ignore other medical needs he witnessed at Cap Haitien’s Justinian University Hospital. “It was swamped with earthquake cases and badly needed equipment and physical therapy help because they didn’t have a PT capability to tend to all the amputees,” he said.

Securing permission from the Haiti Ministry of Health to start a physical and occupational therapy clinic at Justinian, Davis returned with Jim Ressler of Medical Angels and Premier Home Health Care in Fort Lee; Karen Canellos, a licensed physical therapist from Englewood Hospital and Medical Center; and Dr. Thomas Bojko, an Israeli pediatric specialist from Tenafly who is director of medical services and clinical operations at Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. Among their self-appointed tasks was training a crop of local therapists.

At the April 27 dedication of the facility, presided over by a Catholic priest, Davis and his team wore clothing bearing the logo of BAN’s Israeli burn camp. “They knew we were Jewish,” he said. “As a result of the Israeli field hospital, the entire country has a favorable view of Jews and Israel and many people expressed that to us.”

BAN also arranged for Royal Caribbean to bring over a new $155,000 life-saving oxygen processor from Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck to the Sacre Coeur Hospital in Milot, and recruited a team of burn surgeons from Shriners hospitals, therapists from Weill Cornell Medical Center, and doctors from all around the country who belong to the American Burn Association.

“We are committed to taking the burn care system in Haiti to a point where they’re able to do skin grafting and care for more serious cases,” he said. “We will see how we can coordinate care offered by small satellite clinics like For Haiti with Love. With a little more education and supplies, they could save more lives.”

Davis likened the current standard of care in Haiti to “Civil War medicine,” citing many cases of patients undergoing amputations without anesthesia. “They use coconut and herbal paste on burn wounds, which is not going to keep patients alive for long once infection sets in,” he said. “We’re still raising funds and finding volunteers to keep antibiotics and bandages and medical equipment flowing to a place where burn cases often take years of care. The biggest challenge right now for those burned in the earthquakes is to get scar surgeries, because their hands and feet can start to claw.”

Davis pledged to secure kosher food for any Jewish volunteers who come forward.

Ressler wrote in his blog that the Sacre Coeur Hospital is expected to become the national facility for serious burn cases. “The catchment area would extend the 70 miles to Port-au-Prince and beyond.... It is our goal to enable For Haiti with Love patients who require a higher level of care or surgeries to get that care at [Sacre Coeur] and return to FHWL for wound aftercare.”

Davis is convinced that additional burn injuries are inevitable. “The next big disaster in Port-au-Prince will be a burn disaster because thousands are living in tent cities in close proximity and they’re cooking and storing fuels there,” Davis predicted. “When this disaster hits, there will need to be an expanded capability to deal with the injuries. Hopefully through this program at Sacre Coeur, there will rotations of clinicians and educators. It will not be an American style burn center, but it will offer a more organized system to save more lives given the resources they have.”

For information, go to www.haitiburnsurvivors.org or call (877)-BURN-411.

 
 
 
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