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Bascom Palmer Eye Institute

Reflection from Haiti, Jan. 16, 2010

Perspectives from Bascom Palmer’s First Responder to Haiti, Dr. James Banta

I safely returned from Haiti tonight. The extent of devastation visited upon the people of Haiti is difficult to describe. I helped staff a makeshift hospital in two airport hangers caring for around 250 patients. The vast majority had major orthopedic injuries. Of the 48 hours I was there, I spent nearly all of my time simply doing what I could with the limited supplies we had. The first night, I could do nothing but dress wounds, administer IV fluids, and give pain meds along with 2 other doctors and 2-3 nurses. We had an excellent trauma surgeon who did a good job of keeping on top of everything. UM Orthopedist David Pitcher arrived yesterday and was simply amazing. I spent most of the last 24 hours splinting and casting badly broken extremities under his direction. I sewed up a few eyelids and facial lacerations, but fortunately dealt with few eye-related problems. It is a desperate time for that poor country and the desperation is going to reach a fever pitch in the coming weeks as sanitation and morale drop. I don’t fully comprehend how the situation can be remedied. My sincere hope for Haiti is that when the rebuilding occurs, it will be with the appropriate infrastructure to push the country to higher places. It will be a long and arduous process, but one I hope can move quickly with the international attention that has been garnered.

Haiti needs money for supplies and housing. The injured need orthopedic and trauma surgeons with OR support (which is currently minimal—the first field ORs were to be opened today) and quality nursing (which is a severe deficiency currently). Security is going to be a major problem as a desperate group of people cling to the shards of their severely broken lives. An entire generation of orphans and disabled has been introduced into an already strained, deficient system. As I look at the last 48 hours, of which I only slept about 3, the extent of the task at hand appears beyond daunting. There were times of hopelessness as I watched people suffer and sometimes die. Possibly even more difficult to remove from my thoughts were the cries of the orphaned or displaced children who were often inconsolable at bedtime, their fairly resilient natures not enough to overcome the physical pain of the injuries for which they were hospitalized as well as the emotional upheaval of losing their parents. There were some fleetingly hopeful times. Last night, a 15 year old girl was miraculously removed from the rubble of what was her secondary school after 4 days without food or water. Her left arm was crudely amputated in order to allow her escape. After a rather spartan surgery on a folding table sitting outside the hanger, her bleeding was addressed and her fluids replenished. When I left today, she was awake and talking, although very uncomfortable. She still might not survive. Her arm is still in horrible shape and she was found to have a heinous laceration of her lower back that might be infected—yet she was alive and talking. It was to be but a brief respite from the reality of the situation. As I smiled and felt proud of my part in her recovery, she began to ask me about her friends with whom she attended school. Sadly, I knew from the rescue team that she was likely the only survivor, and from the emotionless way in which she recited their names, she almost certainly knew as well. In Haiti today, even the hopeful moments are tinged with a stinging, painful reality.

I wish I could make it more hopeful, but the current reality is bleak. The outpouring of aid and volunteers is heartwarming and will eventually give way to a new, improved Haiti. If anyone would like to do something to help the situation, give money to a trusted charitable organization such as the American Red Cross or the UN’s World Food Program.

Everyone’s thoughts and well wishes for my trip were greatly appreciated. Tom Shane and Tom Johnson should now be there to continue the work. Please remember them in your thoughts. It will be a trying time, no doubt.

James Banta, M.D.
Bascom Palmer Ocular Trauma Specialist