Ray Suarez: Haiti’s Injured Make Their Way to Cange

BY Ray Suarez  January 25, 2010 at 5:44 PM EDT

What constitutes good news in the midst of a tragedy like Haiti’s? Today the NewsHour team headed out to Haiti’s massive central plateau to see an operation that has stretched its modest resources to fit an oversized disaster.

The Partners in Health hospital in Cange is hours away from the sprawling Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. It is reached by a series of first-rate highways built by the European Union, and deeply-rutted, kidney-jarring roads that begin about halfway through the trip. Clear the busy, bustling front gate, and the visitor enters a calm and clean oasis a world away from the confusion, filth, and misery of a destroyed city. Over two decades, Partners in Health, with significant support from the Episcopal Church in the United States and individual American donors, has built a cluster of medical buildings to provide free basic medical care to the people of the central plateau.

But when Port-au-Prince was shaken to pieces, and its hospitals overwhelmed and badly damaged, injured people took to the roads, and hundreds found their way here. If you grabbed a map of Haiti and traced the distance between Port-au-Prince and Cange, it wouldn’t look like much … 60 miles maybe? But in the days after the earthquake the drive took hours. Imagine having a shattered knee, a smashed forearm, or a crushed calf. After you are pulled from the wreckage of what was your shop, your kitchen, your local school, you are lifted onto the back of a pickup truck with several other similarly injured people and driven for hours, bouncing and jostling the other wounded, to a place you’ve never been.

The church is now a hospital annex. All the wards of a facility that normally does pediatric, maternal, and general medicine are full of people requiring surgical specialists. Partners in Health doctors steadily make their rounds, inspect the rods and screws that push splintered limbs back into place. Nurses change the bandages on dressings that cap upper arms and thighs where the rest of the limb has been removed.
Sunday a priest made his way through the wards with prayers, words of comfort, communion wafers, and a choir. As the choir sang a beautiful hymn I saw out of the corner of my eye that a thin young man, now minus a right arm, was weakly but persistently singing along. When the priest came by he cradled the young man’s head in his hands, delivered encouragement, patted his chest, shared a prayer.

Ben-Jean Falot is so thin you could see his heartbeat thumping against his chest. His handsome face is framed by a neat moustache and goatee, his hair cropped close to his head. He’s an Anglican seminarian, 29 years old. He had just finished his talk at a seminar in the capital when the ground started to shake. A fallen wall trapped his arm, and he says he cried out to Jesus and prayed his life would be spared. Trapped in a dark void in the collapsed building, he called for help for hours. The next day he was pulled from the wreckage, but his arm could not be saved.

Telling the story took an effort, you could tell. Ben-Jean’s voice was faint. His breathing was heavy. I asked if he was right handed, and if during the long days in the hospital he had thought much about how his life would be changed by the loss of his arm. He is, was, right-handed, and no, he had not thought much about how his life would now be different, except that it would be harder now. Had he thought, as others in the same position sometimes do, that it might have been better to perish? No … Ben-Jean said he had read about natural disasters and tragedies in other places in the world and the massive death tolls, and pitied the dead. He was glad to be alive, he said, and thanks God for saving his life.

Ben-Jean Falot will be able to continue his seminary studies, and as a priest will be a constant witness to his own people about the cost of the quake. A life of study and prayer will be harder, but compared to those of the manual laborers, hawkers, and construction workers who also lost limbs, he may be able to manage better.

I wished him blessings and good luck, but the sight of his thin brown body against the bright white sheets, eyes cast upward toward the ceiling as we left, stuck with me for hours. The homes of the patients who fill the church floors and crowd the normally airy wards are mostly gone. Their livelihoods may be gone for a long time as well. How do you discharge amputees, and people with cranial and spinal injuries, to the destruction of their old city? And if you don’t discharge them, how do you maintain them in an overtaxed hospital far from their families and less acute levels of care?

It’s a dilemma facing hospital administrators around the country. Back in the capital, the periodic aftershocks make it all worse. As I walked through the darkened streets of the enormous General Hospital complex in Port au Prince, the medical director pointed out buildings that have been given a clean bill of health by structural engineers. Yet there are seriously ill patients in stifling tents and even in the open air. Dr Alix Seguesse told me the patients are refusing to enter the buildings for fear they could fall in the next tremors. Even the few he could entice inside headed for the outdoors in sheer terror during the 6.1 magnitude aftershock last week.

In the face of his patience and good cheer, the medical director has a mountain of problems with no clear solutions. He is trying to impose continuity of care: make sure vital signs are checked, wounds are cleaned and redressed, progress is monitored. The surgeon who labored to save a crushed limb may be gone next week. Charting patients who are moving around the hospital’s open grounds can be a challenge.

More than a hundred second year nursing students at this, Haiti’s only teaching hospital, are dead. Shortly before five o clock two Tuesdays ago, they were heading toward the end of another day of classes. The violent quake pancaked the building … every one of the students, and four professors who were also physicians at the hospital, died immediately. Only in the past few days has anyone started a recovery operation, and the sickly sweet smell of human remains still hangs in the air.

Eventually, the patients we saw being treated last week in the Dominican Republic will have to come home, and have their care continued by Haitian doctors. Eventually, beds now occupied by recovering, but homeless people will have to be cleared for more serious cases. Eventually, the challenge of kidney damage and the need for dialysis caused by the tissue death and circulatory problems of crush injuries will have to be addressed. Today is not that day.

As more widespread demolition work begins, the dead will continue to be pulled from the rubble. The uncertainty of the chaotic early days will yield to the heartbreak of dead children, parents, spouses, brothers and sisters. The anonymous dead may never be properly numbered among the lost. Bodies we had seen over the course of two days on heavily trafficked Martin Luther King Avenue were finally set on fire, pedestrians covering their faces and hurrying past. Five bodies smoldered in the back of a demolished pickup truck on an empty side alley. They were once someone to somebody. For the moment they are nobodies in a teeming capital flailing to stay upright.

Later in the week, we’ll have reports from factories starting to kick into gear again, on efforts to reconstitute the Haitian government, and life in the tent cities growing up around town. That reporting will appear here in the Rundown, on Flickr, and of course on the PBS NewsHour.