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Local doctors treat Haiti quake victims

Community: Physicians recall feelings of hope, helplessness in island nation

Posted: May 24, 2010 11:10 p.m.
Updated: May 25, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Dr. Peter Kim, of Saugus, checks a baby's breathing signs inside a medical tent in Leogane, Haiti. Kim, a physician at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, travelled to Haiti two weeks after the quake with disaster relief group Hope Force International.

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Dr. Peter Kim recalled cradling a 9-day-old infant in his arms earlier this year.

He held the child inside an open tent, one of several make-shift medical offices erected in Leogane, Haiti to help hundreds of injured or ailing people waiting outside a fallen leprosy clinic.

He pressed a stethoscope against the baby’s chest.

“Where’s mommy?” the doctor asked the baby’s father.

“Mommy died,” the Haitian man said.

A slab of concrete had fallen on her legs, severing them from the rest of her body, the man explained to Kim.

Family members pulled the full-bellied pregnant woman from the rubble. Unable to get to any medical help, the mother gave birth to her baby and died at the couple’s damaged home five days later, the man told Kim.

It was only his first day in Haiti, but the mother’s story was one of many that Kim, a physician from Saugus, would hear during a four-day medical trip taken two weeks after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake crushed the island nation in January.

“The motherly love was so strong that she wanted to give birth,” said Kim, 54, a physician for Facey Medical Group and affiliated with Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. “She knew she was dying but she hung on until she could give birth.

“That one story gives me a lot of inspiration.”

Hundreds seek help
Hours after crossing the border into Haiti in January, Kim and fellow team members from disaster relief group Hope Force International found themselves at the leprosy clinic in the small town of Leogane, about 12 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter.

“We opened the gate and saw a couple hundred people waiting to be checked,” said Kim, a doctor of 19 years.  

Haitians would line up as early as 1:30 a.m., waiting for the clinic’s doors to open at 8 a.m. every day, Kim said.

Also on the trip was Newhall Memorial’s Dr. Garrett Sutter, 39. Although calamitous medical situations are the emergency room physician’s specialty, the doctor of more than 10 years had wondered what new challenges he would face in Haiti.

“I was worried about the type of injuries I’d be seeing and I wondered if I would be capable of handling them,” Sutter said. “I have never done an amputation myself but I was worried that could be a possibility.”

By that time, those who suffered fatal major earthquake injuries had likely perished, Kim said. Kim and Sutter tended to patients with high fevers, rashes, vomiting, bruises, cuts and hygiene problems.

“I did see several patients that did require amputations,” Sutter said. “Fortunately, there was a facility nearby that could do something about it.”

Feeling powerless
As Kim’s wife, Esther Kim, cleaned the wounds of a child, small flies began to fly out from the gash.

“It was skin disease and it was that bad,” Kim said.

A man brought in a newborn with its umbilical cord still attached.

“The mother had the baby at home just 20 minutes before,” Kim said. “The baby was still warm.”

Sutter watched one day as a motorcycle dragged a woman in on a corrugated metal gurney. He was fairly certain the woman had suffered a stroke.

“Even in the U.S., there’s not a lot you can do for an acute stroke, but at least in the U.S. you can get diagnosed correctly and get a CAT scan,” he said. “But we couldn’t do anything because we had no means to do anything.”

All Sutter and his team could do was get the woman to a Doctors Without Borders site. Even then, Sutter wasn’t sure how much help she would receive.

“There were times I felt powerless to be able to correctly treat the patients with whatever they needed,” he said. “If they were anywhere else in the world, they could have been managed successfully. Because of accident of birth, they were born in an area of the world that really couldn’t handle their injuries.”  

Kim and Sutter never grew discouraged with the Haitian people.

“I was also really struck by the resiliency of the people,” Sutter said. “There was just not a lot of complaining going on. If something like this happened in the (United) States, there’d be a much different attitude.”

Haiti in recovery
The situation remains dire in Haiti as the catastrophic earthquake left at least 1.3 million of Haiti’s 9 million people homeless and others struggling for survival.

Families stuck in leaky tents with dwindling aid handouts have begun abandoning their children in the hope that rescue organizations will offer them a better life, aid workers say. Orphanage workers say their facilities are swelling with children who are not orphans.

Legislation proposed May 5 in the Senate would authorize up to $3.5 billion over five years to support Haiti reconstruction. The bill directs the U.S. Agency for International Development to prepare a development strategy.

Congress has already passed legislation making it easier to contribute to Haitian relief efforts and calling on international financial groups to forgive Haitian debts.

So far, there has been no significant outbreak of disease, vaccination programs have reached more than 100,000 children and the international aid effort has provided clean drinking water to more than a million people affected by the quake, according to a report released last month by UNICEF.

The U.S. military mobilization in support of Haitian earthquake relief and recovery efforts is winding down and will be concluded for the most part by June 1.

U.S. Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Ken Keen said there are about 2,200 American troops still there, compared to 22,000 at the peak of the U.S. effort. And he says that by June, only about 500 National Guard and Reserve personnel will be stationed in Haiti to help aid workers.

The earthquake was estimated to have killed as many as 250,000 people.

Obligated to pay back
The Hope Force relief group helped about 400 people a day, Kim said.

Leaving wasn’t easy. He plans to return to Haiti in the summer.

While growing up, Kim lived in the slums of Korea with his single mother and four siblings, he said. He’s seen the “bottom of the bottom.”

“Because I was raised in that situation, every time I see someone is in need, my heart goes there,” he said.

When he sees disaster or poverty, his mind flashes to his past.

“When I’m in a position where I can help others out ... I think about my past and I feel obligated to pay back,” he said.

Kim, who also traveled to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, is always ready to respond when disaster strikes.

At his Saugus home he keeps a backpack filled with medical supplies such as a stethoscope and blood pressure cup.

“As a doctor, I have medical skills that God gave me,” he said. “That talent (is) not just for Americans, it’s for everyone.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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