March 3, 2010

Quake spotlights nation's distress, nonprofit's resolve


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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Friday. 01/15/2010 Matt Wickenheiser studio photo.

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Gordon Chibroski

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Staff Writer

CAP HAITIEN, HAITI — Earthquake victims from the south came in buses, piled into pickups and jammed into cars, driving almost 90 miles to find any care they could -- even at Haiti's poorest hospital.

Justinian Hospital doctors, nurses and residents worked through the first weekend treating 130 patients from Port-au-Prince, the capital city destroyed by the Jan. 12 quake, which killed an estimated 200,000 people.

With sparse resources, they helped men, women and children who had broken bones, amputated limbs and crushing emotional and psychological truama.

And members of the Portland-based Konbit Sante worked alongside them. Haitian nurses and doctors from the nonprofit were there, even a Portland volunteer who teaches English as a second language.

But as important as the all-hands effort was, it may not have been possible without the work done by Konbit Sante over the past decade.

Justinian doctors and nurses were able to work in operating rooms without fear of a blackout, thanks to electrical upgrades made by Maine electricians; children were treated in a pediatrics unit supported by two Konbit Sante-funded attending physicians; and the opening of a Konbit Sante supply depot gave the hospital access to vital materials donated to the organization.

Even so, scraping together enough to respond to the disaster has been difficult.

At a hospital with no operating budget, medical and Konbit Sante officials knew they'd have to work together. That's especially true now, because the situation in Cap Haitien was becoming more difficult, not less.

Through last week, victims continued to pour in. The hospital ships off Port-au-Prince were filling up fast, and plans were to more aggressively send victims north, said Nate Nickerson, executive director of Konbit Sante.

Public power in Cap was set to be cut to three hours a day, meaning the hospital would have to rely on generators and an increasingly limited gas supply to power critical systems.

''This is another opportunity to stick it through and demonstrate this isn't a superficial relationship,'' said Nickerson.

That hasn't always been the case in this impoverished nation, where doctors and volunteer groups often come and go as money runs out or a short-term project ends.

The earthquake may be the latest crisis, but the reality is that the need for medical care here was stunning before it, even on an average day.

''It's a different set of challenges this time, but people here are used to dealing with incredible challenges all the time,'' Nickerson said.

''These are bigger.''


In recent days, Konbit Sante has secured medical supplies -- X-ray films and anesthesiology materials, for example -- from the Dominican Republic, and a shipment of gasoline for generators, as well.

Specialists, such as orthopedists and emergency trauma physicians, who have worked with Konbit Sante in the past are on their way to Cap Haitien to help their Justinian colleagues with the overflow of patients from Port-au-Prince.

Konbit Sante has secured the donation of needed instruments from Portland's Orthopedic Associates; a doctor coming from Atlanta will carry them along.

Nickerson's days and nights are spent trying to coordinate stateside aid efforts, sitting in Konbit Sante's tiny office, bent over a laptop that has questionable Internet access. A lot of time is spent just trying to head off overzealous efforts to flood the hospital with volunteers and supplies the system may not need or be able to support.

Hospital officials, somewhat overwhelmed by medical volunteers who show up without notice, have asked Konbit Sante to coordinate their efforts.

And there's also a lack of coordination among local government, the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations. They are parallel bureaucracies that don't mingle much. The problem with that becomes evident when a disaster strikes, making coordination happen is next to impossible.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: People wait in front of the maternity unit at the Justinian Hospital on Tuesday, January 19, 2010. Konbit Sante pays for an OB/GYN doctor who works in the maternity unit and the clinic in Fort St. Michel.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: An earthquake victim sleeps in a wheelchair outside the entrance to the emergency room at the Justinian Hospital in Cap Haitien on Wednesday, January 20, 2010. The steady flow of earthquake victims has taxed the hospital's already meager resources and, because the government in Port au Prince is in disarray and banks are closed, the hospital staff are not getting paid.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: A boy asks for money as foreigners walk past him on a street in Cap Haitien on Tuesday.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: A boy asks for money as foreigners walk past him on a street in Cap Haitien on Tuesday.


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