When Dr. Rick Meinig, a surgeon with Front Range Orthopaedics, first heard news reports about the disastrous earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, he knew immediately that he had to do something.
“I put in an application for volunteering with the Orthopaedic Trauma Association, Partners in Health, and some other associations,” Dr. Meinig says. “I thought I would get a quick response, because they were saying there was a critical need for orthopaedic surgeons.”
Through Facebook posts, he learned that Dr. Jim Smith, a Pueblo surgeon, was already in the devastated country, helping to organize the medical personnel streaming in. He also found that a small, private hospital in Port-au-Prince was desperate for help.
Dr. Meinig’s Front Range Orthopaedics colleague Dr. Paul Rahill was also galvanized into action by the Haitian tragedy. Both physicians were frustrated by the lack of response to their offers to volunteer with the large organizations, which were overwhelmed with demand and bureaucratic hassles. They decided to take matters into their own hands and began contacting their friends throughout the Colorado Springs medical community.
“Everybody dropped everything,” Dr. Meinig says. “Once I said I was going to get down there, all sorts of friends said, ‘I’ll go with you.’
” In less than a week, they assembled a team of 16 doctors and nurses. They gathered more than 2,000 pounds of supplies from Memorial Hospital, Front Range Orthopaedics, and others, including antibiotics, IV supplies, instruments and implants. Dr. Meinig linked up with Bob Penkhus, owner of Bob Penkhus Volvo/Mazda and a former patient, who offered to transport the team on his Beechcraft Super King Air 350. Penkus’ plane carried a maximum of 10 passengers, so he made two trips to transport the team to Port-au-Prince. Supplies were flown in on subsequent days.
Dr. Meinig’s group left Jan. 26. “It was a real Indiana Jones adventure,” he says. Aircraft were continually landing at the Port-au-Prince airport, and as Penkus’ plane touched down, another large aircraft bore down on it.
“Bob took off down the runway to escape it,” Dr. Rahill says.
The team was transported by truck into the city, and the shocking images they had seen on TV sprang to horrifying life. Every street was covered with rubble and debris. Flies circled in the 85-degree heat. The odor of decaying bodies cut through the air.
The team found Dr. Smith, who directed them to CDTI Hospital and hooked them up with more physicians from Colorado, Utah, and Florida. The damaged building had been abandoned, but its two ORs were still in working condition.
“We took over the hospital, opened up the two ORs, and converted closets into small ORs,” Dr. Meinig says.
Over the next four days, they worked nearly around the clock.
“We saw mostly open lower extremity fractures, as well as pelvic, femur, arm, foot and wrist fractures and head lacerations,” Dr. Meinig says.“Many were being seen for the first time.” Dr. Rahill said that case after case was “almost the worst open fracture you can imagine because of the way cinder blocks smashed patients’ extremities, and most were being seen for the first time since the quake.”
After treatment, patients were moved to post-op tents set up in the hospital courtyard by a French relief agency.
The pediatric patients were especially poignant.
“There was a 6-year-old with a closed femur fracture,” Dr. Rahill says. “She was in a wheelchair with a Raggedy Ann doll—that was all she had. Her mom was worried we were going to take her leg off. That was their main concern.”
“There were a lot of children with (infections) because they had not had any medical attention, kids with open wounds,” says Tiffany Willard, M.D., of Associates in General & Vascular Surgery. “A 9-year-old girl will be forever in my mind. I was trying to get her transferred to France for further care when we left. I wish I could know what happens to her.”
Despite the devastation and suffering, the Haitian people were hopeful, gracious, and very thankful, says Dr. Sean Karre of Anesthesia Associates of Colorado Springs, who traveled with the group along with his wife, Dr. Tiffany Karre, a pathologist with Denver Health. Sean Karre treated a man with a right femur fracture. Friends who brought him to the hospital said his home had been destroyed and he had lost his family.
“As we were carrying him out on the stretcher, he kept pointing up at the sky,” Dr. Karre says. “I thought he wanted to thank me and he would invite me to his house one day. ‘But he doesn’t have a house,’ I said. The friend says, ‘No, he’s inviting you to God’s house.”
In five days, the team performed some 130 procedures. They stopped only to catch a few hours of sleep or grab a quick meal from supplies brought from home.
Dr. Rahill said it was overwhelming to realize they could never serve all the needs before them. “I wanted to fix everything and help all the injured. We had to accept the fact that we couldn’t do that.”
They stayed the first night in a private home that was relatively undamaged, although surrounded by pancaked houses.
“We slept outside,” Dr. Meinig says. “I found a pallet of paper towels, and we made mattresses out of boxes and covered ourselves with mosquito netting. In the middle of the night, we could hear people singing hymns.” During the rest of their stay, they slept on the roof of a Christian school, which provided hot meals once a day.
When their supplies were exhausted, the team returned to Colorado Springs on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. But despite the hardships, many of the physicians were eager to go back. The patients they saw, and thousands of others, need follow-up treatment, prosthetics, therapy, and rehabilitation.
“Hopefully, the hospital will continue to function,” Dr Meinig says. “But it will take a generation or more for Haiti to recover. They’ll need long-term support to get their medical system to handle the injuries they already have, not to mention the general health system. I just think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for volunteering. You’ll never find a more gracious or appreciative group of people.”
The Haiti team
Dave Corry, MD, trauma surgeonPaul Rahill , MD, orthopaedic surgeon Tiffany Willard, MD, trauma surgeon Khurram Khan, MD, trauma surgeon Justine Crowley, DO, orthopaedic surgeon Al Bach , MD, orthopaedic surgeon Rick Meinig, MD, orthopaedic surgeon Dan Balch, MD, anesthesiologist Sean Karre, MD, anesthesiologist Teresa Karre, MD, pathologist Jeanie Cothran, RN Doug Gray, RN Jamie Green, RN Deanna Walker, RN Bart Bachura, RN Jim Heidelberg, RN Bob Penkhus, pilot