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Miller School Department of Pediatrics Lends Medical Aid to Haiti

2/17/2010

Like other Miller School departments and divisions, the Department of Pediatrics had physicians travel to Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake in Port-au-Prince. What follows are the recollections of Ming-Lon Young, M.D., interim director of pediatric cardiology, and G. Patricia Cantwell, M.D., chief of pediatric critical care medicine.

* * * * * * * *

Surrounded by a precariously balanced mountain of steel and concrete, the remnants of a leveled building, G. Patricia Cantwell, M.D., suddenly felt the earth lurch sickeningly. She and her fellow rescuers held their breaths, waiting to see if the strong aftershock would unleash an avalanche of rubble on them and the victims they were trying to reach. To the relief of Cantwell and the members of the Urban Search and Rescue Team/South Florida Task Force 2, the wreckage shifted but didn't come cascading down.

Experiencing robust post-quake tremors "was just the most eerie feeling," says Cantwell, who returned to Miami unscathed and who also combed the wreckage of the World Trade Center following 9/11. To break the tension in Port-au-Prince, rescuers sang the words to Carole King's 'I Feel the Earth Move' during aftershocks, recalls Cantwell, who's an Urban Search and Rescue Team medical manager. "It was just a very bizarre feeling."

Every time South Florida Task Force 2's 80-member search and rescue team deploys to the site of a calamity, it does so with two physicians and four medical specialists. Pediatrics sent two team members to Port-au-Prince. Cantwell was joined by Jorge Hernandez, M.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics in the Division of Critical Care Medicine. Beyond its medical component, the team is largely composed of paramedic firefighters and includes canine handlers and search dogs.

Medical members "take care of the task force members," says Cantwell, who's been doing rescue work since the 1990s and traveled to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. "We go because the work is very dangerous. The purpose is to have on-site care should something go wrong."

But once injured victims are extricated, Cantwell's focus shifts to them. She and her teammates managed to free several earthquake survivors from collapsed buildings during her time in Port-au-Prince. "That's like the culmination of everything that you train for in urban search and rescue," Cantwell says. "It was like – Wow! I mean, it was almost like the deployment of a lifetime."

Still, she can't shake the feeling that the efforts of her rescue team made only a tiny dent in Port-au-Prince's staggering misery.

* * * * * * *

Ming-Lon Young, M.D., is no stranger to Haiti medical relief work. In 2004 he co-founded an organization named Project Haiti Heart that built a clinic in Fonds Parisien, a small town near the border of the Dominican Republic. Young even helped raise $230,000 to get Project Haiti Heart started.

He visits Haiti once a year and also does missionary work in Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Dominica. None of that prepared him for what he and pediatric cardiology fellow Kelvin Lee, M.D., encountered in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince.

"I went to hell and came back to heaven," Young says soberly in his office at Holtz Children's Hospital. "You smelled the smell of decomposing bodies everywhere. I saw patients with seizures, some with mental distress, some with urinary tract obstructions. I saw trauma patients. It was overwhelming.

"My nurses cried every day."

After dealing with out-patient cases in a tent medical facility set up by the Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps during the daytime, at night Young and Lee aided two U.S. missionary doctors who were the only physicians working in the partially collapsed Port-au-Prince General Hospital.

"To me those two doctors were like saints, like angels," Young remembers. "The way they interacted with patients and held them and washed their bodies nearly brought me to tears. It was like God was taking care of his children. "When I found out they were both also pastors, I said, 'No wonder!'"

Because the hospital's emergency wing was in ruins, a tent served as the emergency room. Young quickly lost count of how many patients he saw during the six days he did medical relief work in Port-au-Prince. Pediatric cardiology fellow Lee left the shattered city with a sense his work wasn't finished. "Even if you were completely successful and fixed a patient up, you're sending them out the door to no home, an unsure food source and an unsure source of clean water," Lee says. "It's really so much more than just medicine that the people there need."