Headlines

As reported by The Hartford Courant, January 21, 2010.

Doctor from UConn Health Center, in Port-Au-Prince, Describes Haiti's Suffering

By Arielle Levin Becker

Dr. Robert Fuller spent the past week making do with too little of everything, performing hundreds of amputations with barely enough anesthesia, trying to help 1,500 patients who had been waiting outside a Port-au-Prince hospital that, even before the earthquake devastated Haiti's capital, could handle at most 700.

By Wednesday, he wasn't sure what day it was.

Chaos is reigning here, Fuller said by cellphone Wednesday afternoon as he stood in the driveway outside Port-au-Prince's general hospital. He was waiting for a U.S. military truck to deliver food and water to the hospital the first such delivery in the week since Fuller, the head of emergency medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center, arrived as a volunteer with the relief group International Medical Corps. In the meantime, patients had been going without, or subsisting on the buckets of water that relatives brought to the hospital grounds for their loved ones and shared with the patients lying next to them in the grass.

The injured had crushed extremities, exposed bones or torn muscles, wounds that were infected and becoming gangrenous. On Wednesday morning, doctors saw their first cases of tetanus and were expecting more.

But to Fuller, who performed medical work in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami and at ground zero after the 9/11 attacks, there is always a bright note.

On this day it was the 5-year-old boy, pulled from the rubble. At first, the workers at the hospital believed that he was caught in the aftershock that hit Wednesday morning, shaking them out of bed.

But the boy had been in the rubble of his uncle's home since the first earthquake, eight days ago. He'd had no food or water. He was dehydrated, but had no broken bones.

"He's quite thin and he's covered in dust, but he's doing well," said Margaret Aguirre, International Medical Corps' director of global communications, who took over the phone as Fuller greeted a truck arriving in the driveway.

The boy's uncle pulled him out, Aguirre said. His mother was dead and his father is missing.

"It's miraculous," she said. "It's heartbreaking."

Fuller leads the California-based relief group's team at the hospital as it tries to open more operating rooms and aid the survivors. He is in charge of coordinating the nongovernmental organizations, dealing with the U.S. military and supplies it brings in, and making sure the health services are delivered.

When he arrived at the hospital, Fuller found "complete chaos." Bodies were piled 6 feet high, 40 feet around, where the morgue was. Fuller and his colleagues used magic marker to write on the arms of patients they thought should be operated on next. They did the best they could. About 80 percent of the patients needed surgery, Aguirre said.

The hospital administration struggled in the best of times, Fuller said, and now it is trying to handle a patchwork of aid organizations and a stream of medical supplies and aid from all over the world.

He told the hospital's pharmacy manager, "You're going to receive more goods in the next three days than you have in the last three years in the hospital."

Without the capacity to organize and handle the new supplies coming in, Fuller said, the hospital would soon go from having nothing to having a pile of boxes full of supplies the tools they need, but no idea how to locate them within the mass of donated goods.

"From one disaster to the next, I fear," he said.

The earthquake Wednesday morning dealt another setback. Patients, who had finally been moved into the structurally sound buildings on the hospital campus, had to move outside again as a precaution. Because of the hot sun, some suffered heat stroke. By midafternoon, tents had been put up to shelter the patients.

They stayed outside, Aguirre said, because they were afraid to go back inside. "We don't want to upset them any more than they've already been upset," she said. "It was a pretty big jolt."

For more information on International Medical Corps, or to make a donation, visit www.imcworldwide.org. Donations of $10 may be made by texting "HAITI" to 85944.