by Kara Hansen
LEAWOOD — Dr. Catherine Powers and Dr. Dan Towle have both done medical mission work in Third World countries before.
But even before leaving on a trip to Haiti a mere 12 days after the Jan. 12 earthquake hit, they knew this experience was going to be a little different.
Simply getting to Haiti from the United States was a challenge, as the major airports there had closed due to damage from the earthquake.
And when their plane finally did land — on a paved road being used as a temporary airstrip — the two physicians and the rest of their medical team were greeted by a crowd of Haitian people hoping for food and water.
“There were all these poor, hungry, thirsty people standing around the airstrip,” recalled Powers, an anesthesiologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. “They kept pointing to their empty water bottles. We had only brought medical supplies because that was our purpose in coming. It was hard, and I really had to console myself that my purpose was to help them medically, especially when all they needed was something as basic as water.”
Fleeing to a crisis
The two Church of the Nativity, Leawood, parishioners traveled to Leogane, Haiti, as part of a five-person medical team coordinated through the University of Notre Dame Haiti Program. The program partnered with Intervol — a humanitarian nonprofit organization that donated medical supplies — and two corporations: Tradewinds Aviation and Constellation Brands, that provided the air transportation for the group.
Leogane, a city of 150,000 about 16 miles west of Port-Au-Prince, was the epicenter of Haiti’s earthquake. Approximately 90 percent of the city was leveled.
“The need is so much more immense than what anyone can fathom based on watching CNN,” said Towle, also an anesthesiologist in Kansas City, Mo. “The needs there will go on for months and years after the media have stopped covering the effects of the earthquake.”
The Notre Dame Haiti Program’s facility was one of the few buildings left standing in Leogane, and it has become the center of what is now essentially a tent city. Towle, Powers and the rest of their team set up a clinic in the open air, with several makeshift operating rooms set up inside a former nursing school, just a short walk from the Notre Dame facility.
“Our operating rooms were bedrooms with the furniture cleared out,” said Powers. “There were lots of cracks and chunks missing out of the support pillars and we felt about three to four aftershocks a day.”
Doctors took turns going out in a pickup truck to find people who were injured but had not been able to make it into the city themselves. Since there were no street addresses and little in the way of buildings to provide points of reference, finding people in need of care proved to be a challenge.
“We basically asked people on the side of the road if they had seen anyone with bandages or broken legs, and then we would drive around trying to find them,” said Powers.
Most of the 120 surgical operations performed by the medical team were orthopedic operations, as many Haitians suffered crushed limbs from collapsing buildings. And with a delay in medical care for the victims, the medical team saw many limbs that were already infected.
“We would do everything we could to try and save a limb because the Haitian people would say it’s better to die than lose a limb,” said Powers. “They have to walk everywhere and be on their feet, working constantly. Plus, they have no access to prostheses.”
Giving their all
Their days would be long, hot and busy, the doctors discovered shortly after arrival. If an aftershock did not jar them wide awake, many times they would awake around 4 a.m. to the sound of chanting and singing coming from Haitians living in the nearby makeshift tents. The medical team began setting up at the nursing school by 7 a.m. and operated from 8 a.m. until nightfall.
In the 10 days Powers and Towle were in Leogane, more than 350 patients were seen each day by medical teams there. Access to water and electricity was available about half the time — far from ideal for medical treatment.
“It was certainly not a sterile environment,” said Powers. “We were in a nursing school with the windows open, flies coming in, temperatures of 100- 110 degrees, and water was scarce.”
Though conditions were a far cry from medical treatment as many in the United States know it, Towle said the group was able to meet the needs of their Haitian patients.
“You realize you can provide quality care with fewer assets and technology,” he said. “It makes you realize the way medical care is provided to the majority of the world. It’s very different than here.”
The differences in medical care weren’t the only challenges Powers and Towle faced as part of a medical mission team in a crisis area.
They slept under mosquito netting at night and meals of rice and beans were a staple.
“Our group took water filtration kits, which allowed us to filter the dirty water into drinkable water,” said Powers. “Because of that, one night we were able to have spaghetti noodles, and that was like a gourmet meal. It was a whole different perspective on living.”
Sometimes the group did not have access to even rice and beans and had to live off of granola bars.
“Even when we went a couple of days eating nothing but granola bars and drinking water, it didn’t seem so grueling,” said Powers. “I think there was a lot of grace behind us from everyone who rallied behind us and prayed for us.”
Though both Towle and Powers were there in Haiti using their medical skills, the catalyst for the trip was their Catholic faith.
“It comes down to a calling to do for the least of our brothers and sisters,” said Towle. “There are a lot of hazards we wouldn’t face at home, but when we’re helping to take care of God’s children, you just don’t worry about that.”
“It’s life-changing and very satisfying to help people in true major need after devastation like that,” she said. “I really felt like all the prayers and support from others carried us through the adversity.”
The future of Haiti
Both Towle and Powers say it was obvious, based on their experience, that the Haitian people have a long road ahead of them.
“There will be an ongoing issue of access to food and water, which means higher rates of malnutrition, diarrhea, and infection,” said Powers.
“The rainy season for Haiti is coming soon, and most of the people there are living on the streets with bed sheets used for shelter,” said Towle. “We’re expecting disease and infection rates to go up rapidly due to poor sanitation.”
To help meet the current and anticipated medical needs of Haitians, teams of physicians will be coming to Haiti consecutively through the Notre Dame Haiti Program for at least the next six months. Powers plans to go back at some point and Towle is planning to go again with a medical team on March 6.
“We’re going to be taking 40 tents that will house over 200 people, 1,000 pounds of food, and 1,000 pounds of medical supplies,” said Towle. “A lot of that equipment was made possible by the kind donations from the archdiocese and the Church of the Nativity.”
With an estimated seven to 10 years before housing structures are back in place, Towle has no doubt there will continue to be need for medical help.
“I’m going for eight days and then will come back and start planning the next trip,” said Towle.