Building Hope In Haiti - Part I: The Hospital

Mar 11, 2013

Flagstaff was one of hundreds of cities across the world that sent medical teams to Haiti after a powerful earthquake struck the country in 2010. While most other cities have long-since stopped aid to Haiti, Flagstaff has remained and is now one of the leading cities in the world for sending volunteers to a country still trying to rebuild. In the first of 3 stories, Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl follows a day in the life of one Flagstaff doctor working to create Haiti's first trauma hospital.

Preparing for surgery at Bernard Mews Hospital, Port au Prince, Haiti.
Credit KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl

Driving through the loud, congested streets of Port au Prince it's easy to see why traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of death in Haiti. Two lane roads are stacked six-cars-wide. Motorcycles and colorful buses called Tap Taps weave through impossibly narrow spaces. There are no stop lights and no crosswalks. Dodging cattle and stray dogs is part of the morning commute. According to Flagstaff orthopedist, John Durham, "the bottom line here is if you're in a bad motor vehicle accident in Haiti, you're most likely going to die."

Durham was among the first medical crews to arrive in Haiti after the earthquake, and like many first responders he was shocked by the devastation and suffering he saw. He was also shocked by how unequipped Haiti's few hospitals were to treat even the most basic injuries. "There is no trauma hospital in Port au Prince. There is no trauma hospital in Haiti," Durham says. "Haiti has 4 ICU beds for the whole country, you'll see them today. They're in our hospital."

We're on our way in a dusty truck to the Bernard Mews Hospital in the capital city. For months after the earthquake, it was its own epicenter of chaos, overrun with patients who had devastating injuries and infections. Frequent power outages fried x-ray and sterilizing machines in seconds because they weren't surge protected. Durham says many lives could have been saved had the hospital been better equipped and the staff better trained in trauma. "Our interest is to try to change that," Durham says, "to try to build a quality trauma care facility and, specifically from our standpoint, quality orthopedic care."

The "our" Durham refers to is the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps. The group was founded in 1995 and has sent volunteers all over the world. Since 2010, its relief efforts have focused on Haiti. Teams from Flagstaff travel regularly to Bernard Mews to train Haitian medical professionals and deliver equipment like operating tables and surgery lights. John Durham has made more than a dozen trips so far.

Flagstaff orthopedist John Durham in the OR at Bernard Mews Hospital, Port au Prince, Haiti
Credit KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl

Inside the hospital he shows off a new autoclave. In the aftermath of the earthquake Durham says there was no way to properly sterilize surgical equipment because there was no working autoclave. "We couldn't do clean surgeries," he says. "We had no autoclave, we had a cidex machine. But, it's not good enough to allow you to put a plate and screws or a rod or something because it's not sterile enough."

The autoclave was a gift from a non-profit group in Newfoundland. Durham says collaborating with other organizations around the world is one of the ways he brings more equipment and training to Haiti. For Haitian orthopedic surgeon Alexandre Schiller, the attention to Bernard Mews is nothing short of a miracle. "Haiti wasn't prepared for such a disaster," Schiller says. "All our hospitals were overwhelmed. So now we are working on a program to focus more on specific injuries. Just imagine the impact that it will have on our community."

Schiller, 38, sits in an outside courtyard at the hospital where bright flowers bloom and mango trees hang heavy with fruit. He bows his head as he remembers the day of the quake. "I heard and felt a huge noise and the earth was shaking," Schiller recalls. "The house collapsed on me and I spent 24 hours under the rubble. I don't feel words to describe it, all the fear, all the pain I endured that day."

Schiller says he's overwhelmed by Flagstaff's interest in Haiti. He says the people there have brought a tremendous amount of hope to his country. "They came with their own knowledge, their own experience, and they help us to have things better organized," Schiller says. "We have equipment that we're using that you won't find at any other Haitian hospital, public hospital. And they teach the nurses, the doctors working in emergency to know how to use them."

Left to right: Doctors John Durham, Steve Schoering and Alexandre Schiller consult on a patient case, Port au Prince, Haiti
Credit KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl

On this day, Alexandre Schiller and John Durham will work together to amputate the leg of a young boy with a highly malignant tumor. Lenzy is around 14 years old, though no one is exactly sure. He's come from a small village in the mountains. He says if it's God's will to take his leg then he can accept it. But as the anesthesiologist begins pushing medication under newly donated OR lights, the boy's fear overcomes him.

Later that evening, John Durham sits on the rooftop of a friend's home near Port au Prince. It's the night of Haiti's Carnival celebration and he swirls ice cubes around in a glass of juice and Caribbean rum and tries to explain, 'why Haiti'? "I don't have any perceptions or delusions that I'm going to change Haiti or have a big impact on Haiti," Durham says. "But the thing I can do is make a difference in one place, if that's all I do, that's ok. It makes the world smaller for me."

There has been some criticism back home about the hospital project. Some people wonder why he and other volunteers aren't donating their time and money exclusively to their own community. Durham says he understands the concern. But he makes no apologies for falling in love with a place outside his zip code. "I've seen things in the newspaper and heard stories from other people about criticism,  he says, "especially when those people feel we have some of those needs here, so why do you need to go to Haiti? I respect someone's opinion that maybe that's where our efforts should be. I think I just draw my circle bigger."