Local medical officials return from Haiti

Published 7:19 am Friday, February 5, 2010

Mary Fargen, Steve Weis, Vickie Berthiaume and Vijay Chawla typically work with patients in a safe, sanitary environment at the Austin Medical Center.

But in late January, the four medical professionals took on a challenge far removed from their day-to-day work — they traveled to Haiti to help survivors of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that, according to the latest counts, has killed roughly 200,000 people.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Chawla, who is a pediatric doctor. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. It was very hard emotionally.”

The team arrived in Haiti on Jan. 23 and got to work the next day. They split up into teams that traveled to different areas in need, and each put their particular training to use — Weis and Berthiaume are both nurses, Fargen a certified physician assistant.

Over the course of a week in the Caribbean country, which is among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and has been desperate for help after the quake, the AMC crew treated roughly 2,000 patients. Fargen said the single-day high was 510.

They also brought $12,000 worth of supplies, which equated to roughly 1,500 pounds of bandages, medications and dressings. Much of the supply cost was covered by donations from AMC staff, administered by the AMC Foundation.

“We never ran out of anything,” Fargen said, adding that leftover supplies were left with various aid groups.

For Fargen, the trip was not a first — she has now been to Haiti 10 times, working with the Haitian Caribbean American Organization of Texas, a humanitarian group.

Others from the AMC team had experience in Haiti as well — Weis was making his fifth trip, Berthiaume her third. Only Chawla was new to the country.

But even for those who had been to Haiti before, this trip was something drastically different. Fargen said she noticed it as soon as she got off the plane in Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capitol.

“The night we flew in, it was dead silent,” Fargen said, adding that typically one would hear singing and dancing on a Saturday evening in the city. “It was like you went into a ghost town.”

Beyond the eerie silence, others in the group said they noticed a burning smell, both from ravaged buildings and from dead bodies being cremated.

“Sometimes we saw things that you can’t really talk about,” Fargen added.

The four slept outside in tents at a camp set up by the actor Sean Penn, who has been doing humanitarian work in Haiti.

“We were told, ‘Oh by the way, you’re going to be the guest of Sean Penn,’” Fargen said with a laugh. “They were gracious hosts.”

Each of the AMC medical professionals had different working experiences. Weis said on Day One he joined up with a disaster management team that went house-to-house, looking for people in need.

Chawla worked at a camp where young victims lined up for help. She said she most vividly remembers one girl who came to her with severe burns all over her body.

“It was stressful,” the doctor said. “We were trying to work so fast.”

Fargen said the U.S. military was very helpful in directing the AMC team to places that needed aid the most. She said at nights, they would send scout teams across the country, which would then report back to doctors at around 7:30 p.m., giving them guidance for the next day.

Fargen and others also said it helped to work alongside a number of Haitian Americans who could help translate prescription directions and communicate with local residents.

“People were able to trust us,” Chawla said.

Or course, the work is far from over in Haiti. With some reports that Florida — the nation’s nearest U.S. neighbor — has been having trouble taking on a large influx of patients, Fargen said more U.S. states may need to start welcoming injured Haitians.

There’s also the issue of long-term care. The AMC team said the swarm of doctors currently in Haiti are focusing on short-term treatments, such as bandages, casts and pain medications. But it’s unclear if or how rehabilitation will be monitored in the country.

“Acute care is coming to an end,” Chawla noted. “How are we going to provide and coordinate long-term care?”

The four from AMC might be part of the answer. Weis said he was going back to Haiti at least once for sure, as did Fargen. Chawla said she was looking into it also.

“There is so much we can do for them,” she said.