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Haiti: Doctor sees long-term needs as victims reach hospital
By Sarah L. Smith
When Dr. Katy Close arrived at Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti, 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince, the first patient she saw was Asmek.
He arrived in a tap tap, a truck that Haitians use as public transportation. They jump on and off the truck bed whenever they need to get somewhere, Close said. Asmek was on board laying on top of a stretcher made out of a door.
Close, a Prince George resident who splits her time between volunteering in Haiti and at the Smith Medical Clinic, said Asmek had not really been looked after.
“There was nothing anybody could do, so he got triaged to the back of the line. Many paralyzed did,” she said.
Since then, Close made treating Asmek her mission and getting aid for the paralyzed and amputee patients her goal.
Like Asmek, many patients are not getting the care they need, she said.
“Everyone had been asking me what to give money to, specifically at the hospital, and I realized immediately I had been sent to Asmek, or he to me, by some force I do not understand,” she said.
So she donated $75,000 of her own money to buy rehabilitation equipment and prosthetics and reached out to the Pawleys Island community for financial aid.
“The essence of it is that, in the wake of the terrible earthquake, the hospital is now teeming with amputees and quadriplegics. [The hospital] was never set up to be a rehabilitation facility,” Close said.
But, she said it is the perfect place for one.
“We were not demolished; we were strengthened, and we have to use that to help the victims,” she said.
While the hospital board has not approved a rehab program, Close had permission from the board chairman to start the fundraising campaign.
“Even if we do not end up as a site for prosthetics, we will make our rehabilitation better and capable of handling not only our patients but those who continue to come from Port-au-Prince,” she said.
Close has no control over how the board uses the money, but if she did, she’d help people get housing first. Then she’d make sure people get proper nutrition and skin care.
Providing these basic necessities for people could help prevent further disease, something she sees lurking in the future.
“As an internist, I’m seeing the future of this epidemic disaster,” she said.
The diseases are advanced because of the lack of heath care in the country, and the surgeons, in addition to seeing trauma from the earthquake, are seeing the usual head-trauma victims from scooter accidents.
“Haitians ride little scooters here,” she said. “They are totally unsafe. There is no Creole word for helmet, and add to that, the roads are like the ones in Hagley – big with giant holes.”
The holes are so big, she said, a person can get lost in them.
Despite the devastation she sees on a daily basis, Close said morale at the hospital is good, and random experiences keep her own spirits up.
She described one morning on a nearby mountain. She’d decided to get up and run at 4:30 a.m.
“I forgot to ask when the sun comes up. Of course, no one would know. The answer would be, ‘when the sun comes up,’ ” she said.
On that moonless morning she ran through fields, past houses with mean dogs and through dense thickets that made her think of lurking trolls.
“This morning it was so dark I barely realized I was at the top,” she said. “I had my iPod on and “Glory Days” at max volume obscured any noise.”
Suddenly, people surrounded her.
When she pulled her earphones out she was even more surprised to hear music. It was coming from at least a dozen Haitian women, praying for people who could not walk.
“As I had run right into the middle of them in the dark, I couldn’t really back up,” she said, “so I just sat down and bowed my head like a good Episcopalian. I don’t know how they knew I was freaking out about rehabilitation, but God must have told them.”
They prayed until the sun rose, and Close went back to work.