Helping in Haiti: One Doctor’s Story

February 2, 2010 at 7:12 pm , by

Bruce Dubin is a doctor, lawyer and teacher—who also wants to do some good in the world. That’s a rare combo. I saw Dr. Dubin last week in Colleyville, Texas. He lives in Colorado but had just come from Haiti to attend the funeral of his friend (and my beloved brother-in-law), Dr. Richard Grossman, who had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Nothing else could have gotten him to leave his efforts to help in Haiti, he said, and he will go back soon. Here’s a bit about what he saw and experienced while there.

group in Haiti
When you first heard about the earthquake, what did you think?

When I saw the announcement on television, I knew it was going to be bad, and I just felt like I had to go. So I hooked up with three of my former medical students (above; with Dr. Dubin on the left), and they all had the same gut feeling I did. One of them had some connections in the Dominican Republic and with a church group that was going to Haiti, so that’s how we started our trek.

What did you see when you arrived?

Outside Port-au-Prince, it almost looked like life as usual in Haiti. But as we got closer to Port-au-Prince, the scene changed and it looked like a war zone, with rubble and bodies everywhere. The smell was so bad, everyone had to wear face masks. It was hot. Dust from the debris was settling in the air, and there was smoke from some oil fires as well. The students with me saw some things that no one should ever have to see in their lives.

Sounds like you were early responders. When did you get there?

The earthquake happened on Tuesday; we got there and set up our first clinic on Friday. We couldn’t believe the lack of any initial response, at least on the part of the U.N. The first night or two, we saw maybe one or two U.N. vehicles with a couple of people driving around. But that was about it. Some of the bodies had been removed from the street by Sunday, but people were pretty desperate for food and drinking water. And there was a shortage of basic medical supplies. We were seeing children and adults who had been under rubble or had been injured and had open wounds, lacerations, fractured bones, and they were running the risk of developing severe infections and losing their limbs.

hospital in ruinsWhat kind of facility did you have for taking care of victims?

We set up a staging area where we could keep water and food as well as medical supplies, and from there we went out to different locations to screen people. So we would maybe find a churchyard that was becoming a homeless encampment, or an orphanage, and we’d set up a clinic there and start triaging people. After we finished our clinic the first day we were instructed to drive back to the encampment as fast as possible because of the risk of being stopped and having our vehicles robbed. By this point, people were really desperate.

We had some supplies, but it was very limited. For example, we had no splints, and at one point we were rolling up newspapers to make splints for fractured bones. We had to improvise for what we needed. There were more amputations than we would have done in the states.

We set up a small clinic in one building adjacent to a parking lot and met people who told us that their house was gone, their family was gone, they were the only person left. They had nothing. Literally nothing. It was so sad.

Is there anything that could have helped?

This story is repeated over and over again in disasters around the world. We need an organized system of disaster response. In the beginning that coordination was lacking. Some great groups came in, like Doctors Without Borders. But in the beginning there seemed to be a lack of overall coordination and people were just doing stupid things. Some of those stupid things are still happening now in terms in terms of the way food and water are distributed, the methodology of getting supplies to the right areas. There’s no infrastructure within Haiti now to take care of the problems. People will need support and supplies. This will go on and on.

homeless childHow did it affect you to see so many babies and orphans?

The resilience of the Haitian kids is amazing. They had just been through a nightmare-ish reality and yet they would have smiles on their faces and do what kids do. The thing that scares me is when the shock of what they have gone through starts to set in. Right now it’s about getting through to tomorrow.

What made the biggest impression on you?

At one of the camps we needed interpreters. A man who spoke English and Creole came and just started working with us. At the end of the day, I went out in the courtyard to talk to him. Turned out, he was a guy who’d just lost everything. He showed me a picture of what his house used to look like, and it was just a pile of rubble now. He lost his whole family, his mother, his father, brothers, sisters, everybody, except for him. He was living in this courtyard now, volunteering to help other people. I asked him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he replied, ‘Honestly, I’m just going to live day by day.’ But he was taking his time to help other people and do what he could. That was so moving.

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