Haiti volunteers plan to return

Flagstaff, AZ – As the news about January's earthquake in Haiti is replaced by other stories, a group in Flagstaff will not soon forget the devastation they witnessed. About 30 Flagstaff doctors and nurses traveled to the shattered country last month to help the injured and sick. And another group is going back in April. They recently got together to share photos and stories and to plan their next trip. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales was there and has this story.

John Durham, affectionately known as "Bull Durham," has a warm smile and mad scientist hair. You'd have to be a little mad to take on organizing this big volunteer effort.

DURHAM: Within seven days I had 30 people who were signed up to go 3:50 changed their lives, got time off work, went through the expenditure to get themselves to Miami and I'm just blown away by that.

Durham and others in the group said they couldn't just sit back and watch the crisis unfold on TV knowing they had skills that could help.

Project Medishare, an organization affiliated with the University of Miami, provides medical assistance to Haiti. Medishare flew the corps from Miami to Port-au-Prince. Once there the group of medical professionals worked on more than a hundred patients with limited supplies.

DURHAM: We were taking care of open wounds stabilizing fractures we weren't able to do operative treatment of fractures because we didn't have clean O.R.s This was a MASH-like facility plywood on dirt floor, bugs, three beds separated by screens so the conditions were pretty stark.

Durham was one of nine orthopedic surgeons in the Flagstaff group. Once there he quickly realized he wasn't going to be able to perform surgery. So he took it upon himself to find operating rooms for those who needed them. They flew five patients with back or pelvic injuries to the U.S. Medishare air lifted another 25 patients to a better-equipped hospital in Milo, Haiti. Durham escorted them by helicopter so he got a bird's eye view of the devastation.

DURHAM: I had been to a number of third world countries so I was somewhat prepared. To see one of the worst one of the poorest countries in the world with the amount of devastation it was just one can't prepare for it. It was just incredible you'd see these parts of town where there would be a roof intact laying on the ground and the walls are gone and the roof was intact and you knew there was still bodies lying under those roofs.

KIRSCHNER: I probably cried more in one week than I have in my whole adult life.

Elena Kirschner is a registered nurse at FMC. Her hardest case was a man in his late 30s who came in with extreme asthma exacerbated by the earthquake. It had taken him three days to get to the Medishare facility. Kirschner and another nurse had to take turns helping him breathe with a bag valve mask.

KIRSCHNER: In the states there are special machines that can do this but there we had to do it by hand And it was just a very moving intense experience because you're so close to him and he was struggling so hard and you had to bring yourself to be in his rhythm and you just bonded with him completely and his asthma broke. It was just amazing to watch him work so hard then to see him smile and be able to thank you.

When he could finally breathe on his own he told the nurses he and his family were hungry.

KIRSCHNER: As soon as we handed him food he said he wasn't going to eat it until we fed his family. This guy just exemplified everything good and right about human beings it was just so amazing and so powerful.

After he and his family were fed, he was moved to the Intensive Care Unit and Kirschner found out he had another asthma attack. This time he did not make it.

KIRSCHNER: And that was just so heart wrenching after spending that intense time with him.

Kirschner is accustomed to death but in Haiti the tragedies far outnumbered anything she'd ever witnessed.
Christi Knecht, an intensive care nurse at Flagstaff Medical Center, says the patients who made it to the Medishare facility considered themselves lucky.

KNECHT: It's not over there is not enough aid the rains are looming in the near future and there's not shelter for a lot of those people there's not enough food there's not enough water.

Durham is putting together another group to go back in April. And the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps, as they now call themselves, will hold an event at Flagstaff's Orpheum Theater in May to raise funds for the Haiti relief effort.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.