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Medical mission increases in St. Louis-supported Haitian hospital

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 25, 2010 - Early Monday afternoon 12 Missouri internists, pediatricians and nurses arrived at a 300-bed, indoor Haitian hospital that had 74 just beds a week ago.

The Missourians left St. Louis about 8:20 this morning on route to the Cap Haitian airport in Northern Haiti. Within 90 minutes of arriving, they planned to begin seeing patients at Sacre Coeur hospital in the historic mountain town of Milot after completing an hour-long drive over mediocre roads.

Dr. William Guyol, a St. Louis internist who has for many years volunteered at the hospital at least one week annually, is leading the mission of doctors, nurses and other medical support staff from SSM Health Care's St. Mary's Hospital, Cardinal Glennon Hospital in St. Louis and Boone County Hospital in Columbia.

"We'll go to work as soon as we get there, patients are waiting," said Guyol, a board member and chair of the medical Committee of the Center for the Rural Development of Milot, better known as CRUDEM foundation . The foundation, begun by St. Louisans, has run the hospital since 1992 and its donors have been the hospital's chief support since 1986. For more than a decade, St. Louisans were the main medical volunteers and donors but now they get some worldwide help but none from government bodies or major charities.

While the hospital mushroomed from 75 beds to 300 beds, it's set to expand more with 200 more cots expected today or tomorrow. Even with this rapid growth, doctors say that the hospital's quality of care has not been compromised. Trauma surgeons and orthopedic surgeons have been working into the night in two surgical shifts for 10 days attend emergency patients airlifted from the earthquake zone of Port-au-Prince.

Wounded and sick Haitians airlifted the 80 miles from the devastated national capital to a soccer field chopper pad in Milot by U.S. Coast Guard and Navy helicopters have more than trauma injuries and infections. Many have chronic conditions and most of them had been unable to take their regular medications for days after the earthquake.

For the past several days, Sacre Coeur hospital has been getting seven to eight medical helicopters airlifts a day. On Friday, 42 severely injured patients were airlifted.

"These refuges have had high blood pressure, heart disease, TB, hypertension, diabetes and other chronic problems that they had before the earthquake," Guyol said. Many also have infected wounds from earthquake injuries that were unattended for days. Since the Haitian government urged Port-au-Prince residents to leave the capitol for fear of more aftershocks, an influx of refuges with chronic ailments to the verdant northern town of Milot likely will continue to increase. So, Sacre Coeur hospital put out the call for more internists late last week. Guyol, who had spent much of the days since the earthquake working the phones to get surgeons and medical supplies, was ready to go.

"We put this trip together in 72 hours," said Guyol as he prepared to board the five-hour flight, which was paid for by Jerry Moyes of Phoenix, Ariz. owner of Swift Transportation. "He's a friend of a friend of a friend of St. Louis volunteers. He does not really know us; this is really a gift.

"All of these doctors and nurses cancelled their appointments, their work shifts, operations," he said. "Many of them are working on unpaid leaves. These people dropped everything -- their family life, their careers -- in a heart beat. I am amazed at the can-do attitude of my friends."

When pressed, Guyol said that by seeing some of his St. Louis patients last Wednesday -- usually his office staff's day-off -- Guyol was able to fit in some patients who had been due in this week. The rest had appointments postponed. "Patients were really incredible nice and supportive when we cancelled," he said. Scores of other Missouri doctors and nurses who are remaining at home, will step in and be on call so their colleagues could join the mercy mission.

At the time of the earthquake, Sacre Coeur in Milot was the largest hospital in the north and outsider had called it one of the best in Haiti. Over the past 20 years it has been expanded and supported largely by St. Louisans from a half dozen Catholic parishes along the region's central corridor from the St. Louis Cathedral to St. Clement in Frontenac. Sacre Coeur was able to expand greatly in a week because of very large checks written mostly by St. Louisans and donations from their medical suppliers.

The "new" 225 beds are in some former office space but mostly in two Milot school buildings transformed into medical wings. A third school is being used as a dorm for medical teams and can sleep up to 100 medical volunteers. This week, the USS Bataan and the First Marine Expeditionary Force began to give some on-ground help in Milot, Guyol said.

The flight's medical volunteers in addition to Guyol are

  • Dr. Robert G. Flood, director of the pediatric emergency medicine division at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center,
  • Mary Laffey, a Glennon pediatric transport nurse,
  • Jennifer Baggett, RN,
  • Heidi Ennenback, RN,
  • Marie Milewski, RN,
  • Karen Althage, RN,
  • Rick Baker, flight paramedic,
  • Mark Gortmaker, a certified registered nurse anesthetist from Columbia's Boone County Hospital, Boone County Hospital,
  • Dr. Rick Coats, Boone County Hospital,
  • Dr. Holly Bondurant, Boone County Hospital,
  • Dr. Adam Wheeler, Boone County Hospital.

The flight's only non-medical volunteer was CRUDEM board member Charles T. Dubuque, vice president at St. Louis-based Ronnoco Coffee. On the ground, he will assess hospital needs to focus on medical donations in the coming week.
At the north end of St. Louis Lambert International near the Signature Flight Support offices the small jet _ the largest plane able to land at the Cap Haitian airport _ was packed to cargo capacity with 1,400 pounds of equipment, nearly all of it from St. Louis companies, doctors' groups and St. Louis sales outlets of international medical suppliers.

Neil Kiesel, of SSM Health Care, spend hours on the phone last week begging his hospital chain's regular medical suppliers to donate critically needed medical supplies to CRUDEM, Guyol said.

Signature Medical Group of St. Louis, a group of doctors who specialize in orthopedic medicine and Dr. Enrico Stazzone donated special surgical implants, pins, metal bone interior supports and exterior cages. Phillips Medical contributed a large number of supplies. Some supplies are basic including boxes of 100 sterile hospital gowns, Guyol said. Caritas International and Americares also have supplied medical support.

Milot families have welcomed into their modest homes families of hospitalized Haitians and about 20 others released after care that now require out-patient therapy. Other residents are helping the injured children who arrived without parents.

Dr. Mark Pearlmutter, a hospital volunteer emailed other doctors about the incredible generosity of Haitian volunteers at the hospital.

"The first night at 1 a.m., while making rounds I encountered a young girl around 8 or 9 years old, with a high fever and in a lot of pain. I turned to who I thought was her mother at her bedside and, through an interpreter, spoke to her about planned tests. Her responses evoked the pain and caring of a loving mother. When asked how she planned to ultimately return to Port au Prince with her daughter, I was informed that she was not related, but lived locally and only met her the day before. For the past 36 hours, she had been sitting in vigil caring for her, holding her hand, washing her twice daily and providing solace and comfort to a pure stranger."

St. Louis support for the hospital has been heartfelt, Dubuque said. Our Lady of the Pillar Catholic Parish School in Frontenac is charging "tolls" for CRUDEM to parents' cars at school drop-off and pick-up times. Immacolata Catholic Parish School in Richmond Heights donated admission fees and donations from its "Friday Night Lights" basketball games. The St. Louis Haitian Community held a music benefit over the weekend for the hospital. Many St. Louisans have written substantial checks, Dubuque said.

"St. Louisans are just incredibly generous," he said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has long covered religion in the St. Louis area.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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