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Boulder Surgeon Lends His Skills to Haitian Earthquake Victims

February 15, 2010
Boulder surgeon lends his skills to Haitian earthquake victims General health needs are overtaking earthquake injuries as most serious problem, he reports By Erica Meltzer Camera Staff Writer Boulder Daily Camera Posted:01/27/2010 09:22:02 PM MST How to help Donate to those affected by the Haitian earthquake through the American Red Cross International Response Fund by going to ColoradoRedCross.org/haiti or by calling 800-REDCROSS. Partners in Health has provided medical care throughout Haiti for more than 20 years, and because many of its clinics were in the countryside, more of the group's infrastructure remains intact. For more information and to donate, visit standwithhaiti.org. Doctors without Borders provides medical care in Haiti and more than 60 other countries. For more information and to donate, visit doctorswithoutborders.org. To help support medical efforts in Leogane, donate to the Medical Benevolence Foundation, a project of the Presbyterian Church, at mbfoundation.org, or World Wide Village at worldwidevillage.org. Boulder surgeon Mark Hammerberg said both groups have done an excellent job bringing in medical supplies to the area in which he is working. Medical supplies also are being collected at Boulder Holistic Medical Center, 805 S. Broadway, Suite 103. Heartline Ministries runs an orphanage and provides life skills training to women in Haiti. The group also runs a clinic out of its facility and is shifting focus from immediate medical response to helping people recover from earthquake-related injuries. For more information and to donate, visit heartlineministries.org. Reach Out to Haiti runs an orphanage in Haiti that needs to be rebuilt and provides other services. For more information and to donate, visit reachouttohaiti.com. Real Hope for Haiti runs a rescue center that provides housing and care for sick and malnourished children. For more information and to donate, visit haitirescuecenter.wordpress.com. Kentucky Adoption Services is supporting relief efforts to Haitian orphanages. Several Colorado families adopting children from Haiti worked with this group. For more information and to donate, visit kentuckyadoptionservices.org. For more information on the Colorado Haiti Project, and to donate for relief, visit coloradohaitiproject.org. Civil and structural engineers, especially those who speak French or Creole, can find volunteer opportunities at the Engineers without Borders Web site at ewb-usa.org/haiti.php. Beware of fraudulent solicitations in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett is encouraging anyone who wants to help victims of the quake to make sure their money reaches the organizations actually helping the Haitian victims. Give directly to legitimate organizations that are already on the scene in Haiti, like the American Red Cross International Response, and do not respond to phone or computer solicitations, he said. Like so many people watching the devastating news out of Haiti, Mark Hammerberg spent the first few days wishing and hoping that "some people" could help. As time went on, a voice inside him insisted that he was one of those people. Hammerberg, a trauma-trained orthopedic surgeon who practices at Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette and Longmont United Hospital, arrived in Haiti on Friday, 10 days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake flattened much of the capital Port-au-Prince and surrounding communities. The Haitian government puts the confirmed death toll at 150,000, and that number is expected to rise. Another 194,000 are injured. As many as 3 million people were affected by the earthquake and need some type of assistance. Hammerberg accompanied a group assembled by Jodel Charles, a Haitian immigrant whose parents are physicians in Leogane, a town 18 miles west of Port-au-Prince that was at the epicenter of the earthquake. The connection was as informal as can be -- his physician's assistant's wife had a friend whose child attended a school that was collecting medical supplies for Charles to take to Haiti. He learned of the effort Jan. 19, and by Jan. 21 he was on his way to Haiti. His team, which consists of several other orthopedic surgeons, anesthesiologists, family practice doctors and nurses, has set up a functioning hospital on the grounds of a nursing school in Leogane. The Faculte des Sciences Infirmieres de Leogane survived the earthquake because the American donors who paid for its construction insisted it be built to American building codes. In the last four days, three "dorm rooms with some gauze" have come to look like operating rooms as, bit by bit, supplies and aid arrived. The doctors now have antibiotics, narcotics and anesthesia. A generator provides consistent electricity to the operating rooms, if not the rest of the facility. Other international relief teams have set up camps nearby. Many of them have been sending patients to the American operation at the nursing school because they have the supplies and facilities to handle more complicated cases. The first few days, Hammerberg saw up to 200 patients a day with untreated or poorly treated fractures or infected wounds. The injuries are serious, but he feels he's able to do well by most of the patients. "It's pretty grim," he said. "But they're walking in with their wounds and with their families, and we're able to give them, for the most part, appropriate care." That doesn't mean the same level of care they would receive in the United States or other developed countries. There are far too many patients to order X-rays on all of them, so doctors use their best judgment. Limbs that could be saved in the United States are amputated because the risk of infection from surgery is too high. Similarly, broken bones that would be set with pins in the U.S. are set with casts. "I think most people would rather have a painful ankle for the rest of their life than risk losing a leg from an infection," he said. In some cases, he has had to reset broken bones that were improperly set the first time. It's a painful procedure, but he said the Haitian patients tolerate the pain remarkably well and are grateful for treatment. Hammerberg said the needs are shifting from treating earthquake injuries to addressing general health problems. He now spends more time training nurses in cast management than doing surgery. He said there is tremendous need for family practice doctors and especially for nurses. Several extremely ill infants are at the nursing school compound, and they require around-the-clock care, which leaves the small number of nurses exhausted. Many of the patients arrive suffering from malnutrition and dehydration, wasting away. Food aid and water is arriving, but there seem to be continued distribution problems. Hammerberg said more than 1,000 people are camped in make-shift cardboard lean-tos outside the grounds of the nursing school. A few times the situation has become tense as people grew frustrated at the lack of assistance. But Hammerberg said the situation is personally safer and more secure than he expected, and he's able to work in much better conditions than he expected. If supplies continue to arrive, he may be able to treat more fractures with surgery, as he would in the U.S. Hammerberg expects to return to Boulder at the end of the month or early next month. Because the group is not attached to any formal organization, the doctors are working to make sure they are replaced and assistance continues. "We have an idea of what people should do, and we think we know what other people should do," he said. "But sometimes we're talking about ourselves. This was a chance for me to be the person I want to be. It's its own reward." Contact reporter Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or meltzere@dailycamera.com.