University of Chicago sending second round of medical teams for Haitian relief effort

University of Chicago sending second round of medical teams for Haitian relief effort

February 5, 2010

Three more teams from the University of Chicago Medical Center -- a total of 22 people -- will fly to Santo Domingo Saturday, Sunday and Thursday to provide continued health care for the people of Haiti.

A team of four plastic and reconstructive surgeons from the Medical Center will leave Chicago Saturday, February 6, for a pre-arranged week-long humanitarian visit to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, a trip they make twice a year. Although they typically focus on children with birth defects, this year they expect to perform reconstructive surgery for patients flown in from Haitian clinics.

On Sunday, February 7, a 12-member team of physicians, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, plus a pharmacist and administrative support staff, will travel to the small town of Fond Parisien, Haiti, about 30 miles east of Port-au-Prince, where they will replace a team of nurses and physicians who helped organize and run a field hospital for the last two weeks. The relief camp, based at the 60-acre site of the Love A Child Orphanage, currently provides medical care, food and shelter for almost 300 patients injured by the earthquake, plus their families. The camp is surrounded by a growing tent city of more than 500 displaced Haitians.

In separate trips on February 8 and 11, three physicians and three nurses will go to Port-au-Prince to participate in medical relief missions established there by the International Medical Corps.

"It's astonishing how many injuries we are seeing," said Richard Cook, MD, professor of anesthesia and critical care at the University of Chicago, who has been at the Fond Parisien site since January 26. He reports that they have been "diagnosing every possible illness you can imagine and treating all sorts of things in a rough way."

Most of the patients, particularly those with serious orthopedic injuries, have come from areas in and around Port-au-Prince, Cook said. There are also local people who need medical care, but the significant ongoing and post-surgical cases have arrived by bus from the capital, or via helicopter. This week the team began receiving patients needing post-operative care from the Navy's hospital ship, the USS Comfort.

"I've seen more pediatric amputations in my nine days here than I have in the rest of my career combined," Cook said during a phone call earlier this week. "The devastation is almost incalculable."

The teams have been recruited and organized by University of Chicago emergency medicine specialists Christian Theodosis, MD, and Chrissy Babcock, MD, who worked with non-governmental agencies on the ground in Haiti and the Dominican Republic to assess exactly what the needs were and select and equip the appropriate teams. The Medical Center has donated medications, supplies and diagnostic and treatment equipment, including a portable X-ray machine and two ultrasounds. Philips Medical is supplying two mobile "C-arms," advanced x-ray imaging systems. More than 200 faculty and staff have volunteered to help.

Some of the supplies requested seem odd for 21st century academic medicine, but reveal the basic medical needs the teams are providing. Besides multiple medications -- especially antibiotics, analgesics and antimalarials -- a note from pharmacist Dima Awad stressed: "Babywipes! Babywipes! Probably the most important thing." Earlier requests called for measles vaccines, vitamin A, thousands of trash bags and 500 pairs of adult crutches. As the patient population grew, the team asked for tools to distribute medicines, such as small empty bottles and Ziploc bags.

For their own comfort, staff requested pre-cooked mac and cheese and anything to improve the taste of the water. Awad also warned the incoming teams to bring bathing suits, because "neither the bathrooms nor the showers are private."

Members of the initial Haiti Relief team began returning to Chicago this week. A multi-institutional team of emergency medicine specialist returned from Port-au-Prince on Tuesday and most of the Medical Center team now in Fond Parisien returns to Chicago Monday night.

Theodosis, who has served as medical director of the Fond Parisien medical relief camp since January 26, plans to stay in Haiti through the end of February. Babcock helped organize and prepare the follow-up teams from Chicago and will join Theodosis there with the new team, which will remain in Haiti for two weeks.

Despite the hardships, challenges and the sparse resources, the volunteers have found the experience enormously rewarding. "We haven't lost a single patient yet," Theodosis said, despite the rapid influx of complex injuries.

"Late last night," he wrote in a February 5 email, "a terribly injured 23-year-old female with profound crush injuries to her left arm and leg, arrived in camp, barely conscious." She had left Port-au-Prince seeking medical care and weeks later turned up at a relief camp in the Dominican Republic. The staff there "felt she needed a higher level of care," Theodosis wrote, "and they sent her and her family overland looking for us." She barely made it, he notes, but "we were able to keep her alive overnight, she responded to resuscitation efforts, and this morning the military medics flew her to the USS Comfort."

"These are the cases," he said, "that remind us why we are here."

"The Haitian people are a constant inspiration to the people who are working here," said Cook. "They are stoic, gracious, polite, optimistic, and deeply faithful. They are responding as well as any community possibly could to such a disaster. The children are beautiful beyond belief, and the wounds will break your heart."

Images (first, top of page) courtesy of Justin Ide/Harvard University
Remaining images in press release (second, third and fourth) courtesy of Christian Theodosis, MD.

Additional images -- courtesy of Justin Ide/Harvard University