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January 21, 2010

Dispatch from Port-au-Prince

jean ford

I came to Port-au-Prince on Tuesday afternoon with Project Medishare of the University of Miami School of Medicine. Upon landing, it was clear that the world has responded to the disaster in Haiti. Airlines from various countries landed and took off frequently. Also evident were long lines of sad, anxious, forlorn Haitians, waiting their turn to leave their country for an uncertain future. Quite a few children appear to be without their parents.

From the airport yesterday afternoon, we went directly to the field hospital, which consists of two large tents. There are approximately 60 patients in the larger tent, plus 40 in the other.

I jumped right in to assist, and after several hours, was asked to cover the night shift. The primary issues for the adult patients have been management of wound infections, and pain management. There are quite a few below-knee amputees, as well as patients with major trauma, including pelvic fractures, rib fractures, skull fracture, etc.

However, the psychological trauma may be more profound. As I write, I see six cheerful kids with beautiful smiles. These smiles intermittently give way to pensive, if not sad or anxious, moments. There are children who witnessed their parents' death, including one who was trapped under the concrete with her parents' decomposing corpses. Adult after adult seems stunned. One says, "I am already dead".

However, each individual has a story of survival. During the major aftershock yesterday (January 20) at 6 a.m., many terrified hands went up, calling Jesus for protection—or mercy. Shortly thereafter, one patient said "nou la toujou, doc" (translation: “We’re still here, doc.”). Nearly all the patients have at least one family member with them, 24/7. The relatives serve as gentle advocates who are grateful for the care we deliver. They also serve as generous partners who help make the field hospital work. One young woman, a pharmacist, volunteered to help run the pharmacy, as she is there day and night, helping her younger brother.

Today, the hospital is moving to larger quarters with more advanced technology—an X-ray machine. I am amazed at the number of lives saved using low-tech medical care.

This is a unique experience. I am working side-by-side with quite a few Haitian doctors and nurses who live in the US, and felt a strong urge to go to Haiti, and help. I finally saw my brother Henri today. He is a pediatric surgeon, and working at another field hospital. My brother Billy, an anesthesiologist, arrives tomorrow. This is the closest we've ever come to working together as physicians. I was pleasantly surprised to find several members of my extended family here: A faculty member from Johns Hopkins was in Haiti with several pediatric residents at the time of the earthquake. They have taken the lead in delivering pediatric care at our field hospital.

Most of all, I am energized by the optimism of so many people around here. As the world is here to help, Haitians embrace the old saying "se moun nou ye" (translation: “We are people.”). They are grateful for this universal recognition of our humanity, and they fervently believe that Haiti will be rebuilt.

This is a very special moment.

Jean Ford, MD
Associate Professor
Department of Epidemiology
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health