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Medical school mounts mission of mercy for Haiti

Medicine@Yale, 2010 - Jan Feb


On January 18, Martin Luther King Day, people around the world were still struggling to grasp the extent of the devastation wrought in Haiti by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, the epicenter of which lay just 15 miles from the nation’s densely populated capital, Port-au-Prince.

That day, David J. Leffell, M.D., the David Paige Smith Professor of Dermatology and Surgery and deputy dean for clinical affairs, conferred with Paul D. Cleary, Ph.D., dean of the Yale School of Public Health and Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health, about the crisis.

Leffell speedily convened a meeting with Roberta L. Hines, M.D., chair and Nicholas M. Greene Professor of Anesthesiology; Martha C. Highsmith, Ph.D., deputy secretary of Yale University; Gregory Luke Larkin, M.D., M.S.P.H., professor of emergency medicine; Linda C. Degutis, Dr.P.H.., M.S.N., associate professor of emergency medicine and director of the Yale Center for Public Health Preparedness; and Maria Bouffard, director of emergency management services at Yale University.

A medical team was assembled, including Larkin; Nousheh Saidi, M.D., assistant professor of anesthesiology; orthopaedic surgeon Peter Boone, M.D., of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport, Conn.; and physician assistant Donald MacMillan, PA, and nurse Tom Kimberly, APRN, of the Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH) emergency department. Ralph Jean-Mary, business manager for YNHH and a native of Haiti, later joined the group to assist as an interpreter and with logistics.

On January 26, a jet carrying the Yale team and a donated, 1,500-lb. cargo of much-needed medical supplies touched down in the port city of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti. A small plane then took them over mountainous terrain to the city of Hinche, about 50 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, where earthquake victims were being evacuated to the Hôpital Sainte Thérèse, a hospital operated by the worldwide health care organization Partners in Health.

A small hotel in Hinche owned by Jean-Mary’s parents provided lodging for the Yale team. For the next six days, they provided life-saving medical, trauma, and surgical care at the hospital for scores of children and adults, and also instructed local doctors and nurses in the use of monitoring and anesthesia equipment.

The group treated fractures and crush injuries, many of which were worsened by the delay in obtaining medical care. Wounds that would have been minor if treated early became grossly infected, often requiring amputation. “As horrible as something like amputation is in this country, we have paved roads, we have public transportation, we have crutches and wheelchairs and prostheses. These patients don’t have any of those things,” Larkin said at a February 1 press conference after the team’s return to New Haven. “It’s hard enough to walk around on their dirt roads with two working legs.” Saidi described the team’s work as a “drop of water in an ocean” of devastation, but she was glad to be able to help at least some of the victims. “If the team wasn’t there I don’t know when or if they would have had surgery,” she said.

The medical team’s efforts were coordinated in New Haven by Kimberly A. Davis, M.D., associate professor of surgery, chief of the section of trauma, surgical critical care and surgical emergencies, and trauma director at ynnh.

“It should be a source of great pride for our faculty and staff that, not only did key faculty leaders like Drs. Davis, Degutis, and Larkin, respond quickly to this tragedy, but we have such a broad range of talent that was eager to help,” says Leffell. “That’s what doctors do. We help people in need.”

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