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Spencer McLean works with an American nurse practitioner to dispense medications at a mobile clinic at Cité Soleil. (Courtesy Kimberly Carcary/Team Broken Earth)
Spencer McLean works with an American nurse practitioner to dispense medications at a mobile clinic at Cité Soleil. (Courtesy Kimberly Carcary/Team Broken Earth)

Life and death in Haiti: A doctor’s diary Add to ...

After the catastrophic earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010, Canadian orthopedic surgeon Andrew Furey started Team Broken Earth, a non-profit group that sends Canadian doctors, nurses and physiotherapists to work at Hospital Bernard Mevs in Port-au-Prince. The Canadian teams run the city’s only trauma centre, train local health-care workers, provide medical supplies and are working to establish sustainable programs throughout rural Haiti.

In January, Spencer McLean, a fifth-year orthopedic surgery resident at the University of Calgary, travelled to Haiti as part of a Team Broken Earth mission. He kept a detailed diary of his experience. These excerpts provide a look at what happens on the ground with their work in Haiti.

January 14

I’m standing in my living room and it looks like I’m in an OR. Medical and surgical supplies are everywhere, intermixed with my clothes, Clif Bars, Pop-Tarts, electrolyte solutions, anti-malaria pills, a mosquito net, surgical scrubs, headlight, water bottle, hand sanitizer, bug spray, money belt, stethoscope. I force it all into two hockey bags. Bathroom scale says 98.3 pounds – I’ve 1.7 pounds to spare! Off to the airport.

January 15

We fly in on a direct flight from Montreal. As we descend, I see Haiti – a place oddly without trees. From the air, I pick out the shantytowns of Port-au-Prince. If our landing is any indication, Haiti is chaotic. The airport has a runway but no taxiway. Our plane lands, gets to the end of the runway and makes a U-turn to taxi back to the terminal. As we walk out to the Land Cruisers sent by the hospital, the 32-degree temps feel wonderful, although I’m sweating as I heft my giant hockey bags through crowds of people.

Our hospital is home to the only trauma centre in the city, covering a population of more than three million. That’s mind-boggling by Canadian standards. The “trauma centre” is beat up, terribly equipped, small. Our initial reaction was, “Where are we?” The hospital has a two-bed emergency ward, two OR suites and a three- or four-bed ICU. The number of ICU beds changes daily as there are only three working ventilators in the country. Three armed guards stand at the gates of the hospital compound. Day and night, people walk up to the gates and the guards do a pre-emptive triage before letting patients through.

We’ve been here five hours and Dr. Marc Francis (who is working Emerg overnight) has had several major traumas, including a guy who drove his motorcycle head-on into a truck. His injuries include: possible tracheal disruption, pneumothorax, smashed mandible and maxilla, fractured/dislocated ankle. If he survives, he’ll go into our ICU.

January 16

First full day and we’ve all had our eyes opened to the realities of Haiti. These people live in constant survival mode. A 17-year-old came in with a dislocated hip in the middle of the night. His wails woke us up as we slept in the hospital dorm. We reduced [manipulated] his hip and the young man walked out four hours later because he had to go to work or his family wouldn’t eat. Incredible.

Today, we did a few surgeries where, in Canada, the patients would be in hospital a couple of nights and go home on fairly strong narcotics. Here, our patients go home about four hours after coming out of the OR with a prescription for Tylenol and Advil. One woman gave birth without any real painkillers and walked out with her baby a couple of hours later. It’s an extremely opioid naive population.

January 17

[Orthopedic surgeon and team leader] Dr. Paul Duffy tracked me down midmorning and asked me to go to a clinic in one of the tent cities. I admit that I was a little nervous because we were going to the heart of Cité Soleil, the most dangerous part of Port-au-Prince. It’s one of the biggest slums in the Western Hemisphere.

A few of us load into a “tap-tap” – a lavishly painted bus that’s a type of public transit – and leave the compound. We drive past half-collapsed buildings, broken-down vehicles and people everywhere. We pass a canal filled with trash and sewage. The place smells like a dumpster full of meat that’s been left under the summer sun. Truly, it stinks. Finally, we come to an area called Iron Market where, among fruit sellers and open sewage and garbage, there’s a pharmacy with medication for us. We see women carrying massive loads on their heads, businessmen walking with their suits and briefcases, cripples hobbling along and traffic.

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