MILOT, Haiti — When Dr. Rick Pitera, an anesthesiologist based in Livingston, N.J., left for Haiti days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled much of that nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, friends and colleagues feared for his safety and tried to stop him.
It would be Pitera’s third trip to the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, and even the threat of earthquake aftershocks and social instability didn’t deter this father of three. Like many physicians and nurses who had previously volunteered their services at Hôpital Sacré Coeur in Milot, he felt an irresistible force pulling him back to a place where he could make a difference for patients at risk of dying from untreated injuries.
Within an hour of his arrival at Hôpital Sacré Coeur, Pitera was plunged into a desperate struggle that would transform one of Haiti’s best hospitals into an overflowing trauma ward.
As news spread about the arrival of additional U.S. physicians, patients arrived by road and helicopter, pushing the 74-bed facility to accommodate three times that number.
Under the best of circumstances, health care in Haiti is substandard, with many hospitals frequently closed and lacking adequate medical personnel and equipment to meet the needs of patients suffering from chronic health problems that U.S. physicians rarely see: malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, tetanus and tuberculosis.
Sacré Coeur is the exception.
Founded in 1986 by the Montreal Province of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and supported by the Massachusetts-based Crudem Foundation and the Order of Malta, the hospital is open every day of the year and never turns away patients who cannot pay.
Dubbed Haiti’s version of the Mayo Clinic, it attracts teams of U.S. medical personnel that train and collaborate with Haitian physicians and nurses. But even a top hospital in Haiti must operate without a stable power supply and standard medical equipment — like MRIs and CT scanners — present in most Western hospitals.
Pitera was already acquainted with such challenges, but he soon confronted something much more daunting: a succession of agony-stricken patients with crushed limbs and other untreated traumatic injuries.
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