Israel's Haiti field hospital: a microcosm of a country's turmoil
Staff work day and night to save lives at hospital, which has treated 87 children, and even delivered a baby.
PORT-AU-PRINCE - The Israeli field hospital in the earthquake-stricken Haitian capital reflects the streets of the city, fluctuating between despair and hope amid the looting, violence and stories of miracles. Each account takes on great importance against the background of the earthquake that devastated the Western hemisphere's poorest country.
A baby around 18 months old lies on a bed in intensive care. She was admitted with an open sore and a massive infection throughout her body. The respirator shakes her every time it forces air into her. She has already been resuscitated a few times, and the team is not optimistic.
In the children's ward, located in a tent, is a baby under a year old; someone left him here after he was pulled out of the rubble Sunday morning. He has open sores on his leg and does not make a sound except for a slight chirping when the doctor checks his leg. The doctors say he is in shock.
"His condition is stable and pretty good considering what he's been through. He'll get antibiotics and surgery on the leg - it's a rare case of survival; apparently he was in an air pocket," says Dr. Assaf Amit, who heads the children's emergency department. "When he came here his condition was life-threatening."
His parents aren't here - perhaps they are dead - but the Israeli nurses caress him and give him a warm bottle of milk. "Apparently it's genetic, the ability to survive - he was lying in the rubble without food for five days," says Gali Wiest, the delegation's head nurse.
"We were shocked by the sights, and the nurses here have to cope with providing nursing care - it's a third-world country," she says. "I have four children myself and I was an emergency-room nurse, but the sights here are very difficult and you need a lot of mental fortitude. We've already taken in 87 children, most in moderate to serious condition; there have been a few operations and amputations, and they keep coming."
But no one stays for long. The hospital has a two-week mandate - nothing compared to the time it takes to recover from complex injuries.
"We're all thinking about the fact that we discharge them into the street, in effect, because they have no home," says Dr. Avi Yitzhak. "But you have to make the right decision: Either you take in 40 people and treat them for two weeks or you try to save as many as possible to at least stop the primary injury."
Yitzhak immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 and says he feels a special connection to the patients here. He says he knows the problems of practicing medicine in the developing world.
"There's no organized network of clinics here, there's nowhere to discharge them to and we have to treat as many people as possible, as long as it's still possible to save them," Yitzhak says.
"When I went out on rescue yesterday I saw what was happening in the streets, the bodies, the people who didn't know what to do. It's obvious that the work is very intensive and I assume that we could burn out at a certain stage. But for now we're full of energy and we're thrilled by our ability to help."
Willsmith Joseph, 9, had surgery Saturday to amputate his toes, which had developed gangrene. Sunday morning he was in a deep sleep in the children's ward. His older brother knelt beside him. They will have to leave before noon. The nurse gives him two packets of antibiotics and some acetaminophen and tries to explain in English when to take them.
"Where are you going?," I ask the older boy. "We have no place to go. To the tent encampment," he says. "Our house was ruined." Willsmith's face contorts in pain as he walks with his new crutches.
"Had we not amputated his toes the gangrene would have spread and he would have died within days," Dr. Yitzhak explains. "Yes, it hurts, and there's an infection, but he'll live. It's a drop in the ocean, and it's frustrating, but we have to do the maximum to help as many people as possible."
Most of the wounds are infected and neglected - some people were pulled out of the rubble after being trapped for a few days, others simply couldn't get to a hospital or were turned away. Max Darlene Azur, 29, came to the Israeli hospital with open wounds on both sides of her leg. For four days she shouted and writhed in pain in the town square. The bodies of two of her cousins were still inside her home.
"I was in my room, and the wall simply collapsed onto my leg. But now I feel much better," she says.
The hospital also had its first birth Sunday. Jeanne-Michelle was brought in with labor pains and delivered a beautiful boy, her fourth child. Jeanne-Michelle sits indifferent most of the time, but when she says her newborn's name - Israel - a broad smile spreads across her face. "I feel fine," she says. She will be discharged within a few hours, to make room for other deliveries.
"It's very symbolic," Dr. Dar Shir says. "In a place where even without the disaster infant mortality is among the highest in the world and most women don't give birth in hospitals, the best experts in Israel delivered her baby. It's very moving, and balances out a little the things that are happening here, and reminds us that a woman who is ready to give birth will do so even when there's an earthquake. It's what keeps the human race going. Of course it's a problem to discharge them under these conditions, but at least she delivered safely and both mother and baby are in excellent condition."
According to the field hospital's commander, Dr. Itzik Kreis, "Throughout the night we continued to deal with saving lives; we received a number of patients in very poor shape who needed surgery and intensive care.
"For now the other medical teams don't have the ability to provide more than first aid. We are focusing on saving lives," says Colonel Kreis. "Most of the injuries are a result of the earthquake, but in a few days the situation can change and regular patients will start to come in as well."
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