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The Miller School's New 240-Bed Hospital to Bring Better Conditions and Renewed Hope to Haiti

1/21/2010

Haiti Photos

The painstaking process of moving critically wounded patients into the Miller School's new 240-bed hospital on the edge of the Port-au-Prince airport began today, signaling a dramatic improvement over the crude conditions survivors and caregivers alike have endured since the Jan. 12 earthquake left Haiti in ruins.

Consisting of four basketball court-sized tents, the temporary hospital has two operating rooms, dialysis and X-ray machines, telemedicine capabilities and sleeping accommodations for overwhelmed and weary staff.

Even portable toilets and showers were on their way to the growing UM encampment, where about 180 caregivers from the University and South Florida community are working around the clock to stabilize and save lives.

Though still in need of many of the basics available in most U.S. hospitals, the emerging temporary facility is light years ahead of the primitive conditions Thomas E. Johnson, M.D., professor of ophthalmology at the Miller School's Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, encountered when he arrived in Haiti six days ago to help deliver ophthalmic care. Though he and Thomas Shane, M.D., a third-year ophthalmology resident, rounded on approximately 200 patients to perform eye surveys, they frequently pitched in wherever and however they could.

"The first night we were there, I helped with an amputation by holding a flashlight over the surgical area while the trauma surgeon amputated an arm...on the concrete behind one of the two hospital tents," Johnson wrote in an email after returning to South Florida.

Despite the hardships, Eduardo de Marchena, M.D., associate dean for international medicine, told staff and volunteers at the Haiti Task Force Command Center that "it's just mind-boggling what we've been able to do."

"You guys have saved so many lives," de Marchena said, after returning to Miami Thursday. "We were actually practicing good medicine without labs."

Steven Falcone, M.D., chief medical officer for the school's medical relief efforts in Haiti, echoed that sentiment Wednesday night at a community forum and candlelight vigil on the Coral Gables campus.

"This has been an unfortunate disaster," Falcone said. "But it's shown us how we can pull together as an institution and as a community to provide important resources for the survival of the Haitian people."

Falcone also expressed pride over the "rapid responder role" the University has assumed since Barth Green, M.D., professor and chairman of neurological surgery, led the first medical team to the ravished capital a day after the earthquake left hundreds of thousands dead, injured or homeless.

Along with Arthur Fournier, M.D., professor of family medicine and associate dean for community health affairs, Green co-founded the UM Global Institute's Project Medishare 15 years ago to improve health care access in Haiti. Their longstanding commitment and deep ties to the impoverished country facilitated the University's quick and expanding role in the medical relief effort.

Since the quake struck, Falcone said, the school has been organizing three to five flights daily in and out of Haiti, supplying physicians, nurses, surgeons, and operating room technicians who have treated and triaged hundreds of quake survivors at the rudimentary urgent care center.

"They are not great conditions, but we're going to improve them shortly," he said, referring to the 240-bed hospital set to officially open Friday.

Improvements, though, are relative. The day after the amputation-by-flashlight, Johnson said, a group of UM volunteers were happy just to commandeer two folding tables and set them up in one of the tents to serve as operating tables. A dividing wall gave a small measure of privacy.

When he left early Tuesday morning, Johnson said, most of the staff was still sleeping on the floor of a tent stage, or camping outside. They had adequate drinking water but subsisted mostly on power bars, peanut butter, crackers, and occasionally bagels and bread.

Most memorable, Johnson said, was the "stoic and calm" nature of the Haitian people whose losses are incalculable, and mounting.

"One could hear the constant cries of pain as analgesics wore off and dressings were changed," Johnson said. But "even with the hell they were going through, patients rarely complained and were happy each time we examined and cared for them."

One of the highlights of Johnson's deployment came when he returned home and was able to call relatives of a young man he cared for in Haiti and deliver long-awaited news.

"One started crying because she did not know if he was dead or alive," Johnson said, before returning to his patients at Bascom Palmer. "I was so glad to be able to tell her."

As the Miller School expands its medical mission in Haiti, the need for translators, anesthesiologists, surgeons, critical care nurses, surgical nurses and specialists in infectious disease, and family and internal medicine remains.

If you are willing and able to assist in Haiti, please send an email to haitivolunteers@med.miami.edu. Include your name, contact information, including all phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and list your availability, language fluency, skills, specialties, title, affiliation with UM, or an external organization, and your country of citizenship, with your passport number and expiration date.

To support the Global Institute's health care mission in Haiti you may give to the United Way/UM through "Operation Helping Hands," make an online donation directly to the Global Institute or send a check made out to the "University of Miami-Global Institute" to P.O. Box 248073, Coral Gables, Florida, 33124.