For four days and nights, Stanford orthopedic surgeon Gaetano Scuderi, MD, fixed fractured and crushed limbs, cleaned decaying wounds and did the occasional amputation, all the while working in a dilapidated, two-room garage of a medical center in earthquake-ridden northern Haiti.
“When we arrived, there were a few dozen patients,” he recalled. “But word got around, and by the next morning, there were hundreds waiting in line. I have to say that we operated through tears in our eyes the whole time.”
Scuderi, a clinical assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford with a part-time practice in south Florida, served on a medical mission with the Haitian-American nonprofit group AHVED, which borrowed a private jet to send 25 physicians and nurses to care for casualties of the catastrophic Jan. 12 quake.
He said he began searching for a way to help Haiti’s wounded after seeing a CNN report in which a team of doctors were walking away from a field of helpless patients.
“As a physician, it was shocking to me that someone would leave a patient who was injured,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in Jupiter, Fla.
The team arrived Jan. 16 and was stationed about 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince at the Charles Colimon Hospital, a facility designed primarily to provide obstetric services to village women. The center had two ill-equipped operating rooms, minimal diagnostic equipment and no lab or other supplies. There was no running water.
“These were literally one- to two-car garages with dying and injured people on the floor with open wounds, fractures and crush injuries. There were some dead and dying people as well, strewn about the courtyard,” he said.
While the hospital lacked supplies, the team had expected such shortages. It had brought dressings, cast material and heavy orthopedic equipment, such as power drills and external fixators (metal rods and bolts to treat fractures) to repair broken limbs. The team worked feverishly in a collaborative spirit that Scuderi said he had never before experienced. One team member, who cleaned the floors after every procedure, turned out to be an oncology surgeon and chief of staff at one of Florida’s major medical centers.
“You’ll never see a doctor sweeping a floor in this country. But this was different—a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “Everyone had one goal in mind. We knew people were out there dying, and we didn’t want to waste a second.”
He said the team treated between 500 and 800 people, performing 50 major and 18 minor surgeries, setting 130 casts and triaging a multitude of medical problems. The villagers prepared soup for the volunteer physicians and expressed gratitude at every turn.
“I remember one patient from the first day. The man’s leg was hanging off. We actually were able to save it,” Scuderi said. “The man was smiling. He said, ‘I’m so happy. God guided me to this place. The angels from America were here.’”