Haiti earthquake diary: Hospital visits

A trip to the hospital in the sprawling slum of Cité Soleil and the General Hospital: Too many patients and too few resources.

Olav A. Saltbones/Norwegian Red Cross/Reuters
Two boys pose next to field hospital tents set up for patients near the overcrowded General Hospital in Port-au-Prince Friday.

Monday, Jan. 18

I go into Cité Soleil in the morning to see what health services are available. The complex operated by Doctors Without Borders is, at least, open.

The last time I was here was probably in 2002 or 2003. After that, it became impossible to enter Cité Soleil, Haiti’s largest urban slum - maybe the largest urban slum in the Western Hemisphere. It’s a square mile of landfill, organized in the 1960s when then dictator François Duvalier wanted to get all the “scum” off the streets in preparation for a visit from the pope.

I think there are more nongovernmental organizations in Cité Soleil than anywhere else in Haiti. But all the attention seems to have only marginally improved life for the quarter million residents.

What has improved is the security.

During the 2003-2004 period, it was the hub for gangs – kidnapping central. It took a united effort on the part of the Haitian government, the international community, and the United Nations peacekeepers, but eventually the gang leaders were extracted or forced out. Now life seems to have returned to “normal” – whatever that means in Haitian terms. But that was before the quake.

As I stand at the entrance to the hospital, looking at the rows of makeshift cots, a young man and woman dump a wounded person in front of us before fleeing. The man is at my feet moaning, his shirt splattered with blood. I run to the emergency ward and bring back a nurse. A doctor is already looking at his gunshot wounds. Hard to determine the circumstances, and I don’t ask. Perhaps it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe he was shot while trying to loot. I leave not knowing. Not knowing things is a familiar feeling here.

In the afternoon, I go to the General Hospital. It’s a mess. Not that it was ever in good shape. I remember seeing it for the first time 20 years ago, not believing the minimal services: people sharing beds, mattresses on the floor, patients responsible for their own medicine, syringes, food, even bedding.

It’s infinitely worse now, through no fault of the heroic people who work here. And they are heroes, working in horrific conditions – lack of medicine, antiseptics, the right equipment. Part of it is just that this is a catastrophe of unprecedented scope, so how could anyone have been prepared?

The center of the building is collapsed but most of the wards on either side are functioning in some capacity. Along the entrance, beds of some sort –plastic sheets or tarps or pieces of cardboard – line the walkway. I avert my eyes. The least I can do is afford the injured some privacy.

Wards inside seem to consist of less than 10 beds, the bed numbers written in pencil on the cement walls. Some of the mattresses are on beds, others on the linoleum tiles.

There is a noticeable presence of American doctors. According to one doctor who came in from Boca Raton, Fla. on Saturday, the hospital was in complete disarray – blood everywhere, minimal triage. His team got to work right away, put a system in place, and immediately got to work with the limited medical supplies they had. The antibiotics were gone within an hour.

The biggest concern, the doctor says, is post-op infection. There was a long line of people waiting for amputations – their philosophy was that those with very serious wounds couldn’t be cleaned, so amputation was the best course of action. I wonder, silently, how one can live in Haiti with only one limb. Even with both, life in Haiti is just downright hard.

Dr. Phil Organ is a wound care surgeon from Naples, Fla. He says they are seeing all the things one might expect to see after such an earthquake: he’s very concerned about the after-care.

--- For all stories, blogs, and updates on Haiti after the earthquake, go to The Monitor's Haiti page.

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