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Sacre Coeur hospital treats quake victims, with thanks to St. Louis doctors, aid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2010 - Hope soars when the whooshing sound of a helicopter nears a soccer field in the northern Haitian town of Milot.

Eighty miles from the chaos of Port-au-Prince, doctors are saving lives in air-conditioned well-equipped operating rooms at the Hopital Sacre Coeur in Milot.

Tuesday U.S. Coast Guard and Navy helicopters transported 44 severely injured Haitians from the capital to Hopital Sacre Coeur, the largest hospital in the north of Haiti. It has been greatly expanded and supported over the past 20 years by St. Louisans and staffed by many volunteering St. Louis doctors.

Late last week and over the weekend, about 14 injured people arrived in cars over the rough mountain roads from the devastated capital city. Then, Saturday, the first U.S. military helicopter air lift to Milot occurred. Military helicopters, including Black Hawks, are transporting patients in groups of four, five and six a flight. About 90 earthquake survivors are now at the hospital with many more airlifts today and later this week.

"We are perfectly situated to help," said Dr. William Guyol, a St. Louis internist who will be heading to Haiti soon. Guyol has volunteered at least one week each year at the Haitian hospital for four years. "Transportation was the only challenge. Now they have that figured out.

"Our hospital works. We are much closer to the earthquake center than hospitals in the Dominican Republic where they have been airlifting patients."

United Nations peace keepers secure the soccer field for safe landings. A waiting ambulance rushes the patients 200 yards to the hospital, said Denise Kelly, executive director of the Center for the Rural Development of Milot, better known as CRUDEM. The foundation started by St. Louisans operates the hospital and its auxiliary services.

At the hospital Tuesday two American volunteer medical teams -- a surgical trauma team and an orthopedic medical team -- were making quick decisions. Nearly all patients required operations. Patients had bones X-rayed, their hearts monitored and antibiotic drips set up as specialists set their bones.

"The patients being airlifted are the most severe, with major injuries, often heavily infected, yes, many with gangrene," said Kelly. "Doctors are doing many amputations to save lives."

The air-lifted patients range from very young children to the elderly, she said. Most have struggled with severe, almost unimaginable pain unrelieved until they get onboard helicopters.

The white stucco hospital, set among palm tress and tropical gardens, is a dramatic contrast to the outdoor field hospitals in treeless Port-au-Prince where some doctors operated without electricity or anesthetics. Sacre Coeur, considered one of the best hospitals in the country for a decade, has its own generators, assuring dependable electricity. Post-operative care can be provided by its 20 Haitian doctors and more than 30 nurses. Last week the hospital employees transformed a nearby school into a temporary patients' wing with 100 beds. Another school can house up to 100 medical volunteers, she said.

Kelly and several St. Louis board members are working on getting 200 cots delivered for the patients expected this week. Foundation board members want a huge tent to set up a field hospital after indoor rooms are full. The tent will require another generator for lighting and medical equipment.

An internist, Guyol will go to Haiti after the surgeons, orthopedic and trauma teams have finished emergency work. From St. Louis, he has worked the phones. He's asked orthopedic specialists to phone their regular equipment suppliers for orthopedic surgical hardware donations.

Today, a plane is expected to deliver the high-quality ICU monitors and other high-tech medical equipment that another board member solicited from a major medical manufacturer.

Another CRUDEM board member Susan Reese of Richmond Heights is working on getting manufacturers of artificial limbs to donate prostheses to new amputees. They assure suppliers that materials can be flown into northern Haiti directly and get to needy patients within hours.

Guyol and other board members also are seeking donations to restock the hospital's basics including crutches, blankets and antibiotics.

"Antibiotics can save a leg," the doctor said.

The expansion amazed even he most enthusiastic fund raisers.

"We are going from to 74-bed hospital to a 200-bed hospital," said CRUDEM board member Charles Dubuque, a St. Louis coffee executive and son of Dr. Ted Dubuque, who founded the CRUDEM foundation, with Reese's late husband Carlos Reese.

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Twenty years ago, the elder Dubuque volunteered at the then seven-bed Sacre Coeur hospital for six months and did 250 surgurical procedures with poor equipment. He was determined that Haitians would have a better facility. He and Reese raised funds initially from St. Louis Catholic parishes to expand the facility and equip operating and delivery rooms. Last year more than 160 medical volunteers assisted the 20 Haitian resident doctors.

"St. Louisans have been extraordinarily generous," Guyol said.

None of them dreamed that the hospital would be a life-saving oasis to survivors fleeing Haiti's capitol city.

Over the weekend, both operating rooms were busy, the maternity delivery room served as a third operating room and another sterile room is serving as a fourth operating room. Monday the volunteer medical teams did 17 surgeries, ending only at 11:30 p.m.

"It's sort of like MASH there," said Charles Dubuque. "Dad's very pleased that the hospital can help."

As he spoke, he was working two phones hiring small charter planes to bring more medical volunteers and replacement supplies to Sacre Coeur. Today a 17-person medical team of orthopedic surgeons and surgical nurses is expected to fly from Florida to the small Cap-Haitian airport a half hour from Milot. The only jets that can land there are six-passenger charters, Dubuque said.

Over the next few weeks, the hospital will get "a whole stream of doctors and nurses," Kelly said. "Most have been there before. It's all been by word of mouth, we have been overwhelmed by medical volunteers."

As impressive to Kelly are the faithfulness and hard work of the hospital's regular 247 employees. The hospital is the largest employer in the town of Milot, once Haiti's capital. Some employees have lost family in Port-au-Prince. Many have friends and family missing since the earthquake. Hospital employees assembled the names of 140 missing people. A CRUDEM volunteer in the U.S. is trying to get information from relief agencies on each of the 140 as one small way to support the Haitian employees, Kelly said.

The town's residents have welcomed families of patients into their humble homes. Other residents repaired pot holes to make the ambulance ride smoother.

"We are still doing the regular work of the hospital, caring for the Haitian people of the north," said Kelly. "Before the earthquake, the hospital was packed to capacity day after day. Now our resources are being greatly stretched. Fuel and food prices are skyrocketing. As patients are able to be released from the hospital, they will need a place to stay. Many will need to remain in the area to receive follow up care."

The hospital is supported almost completely by private donations with a few exceptions, Guyol said. It gets no government  support. "This is going to be expensive, but we are glad to do it," said Guyol. "As soon as people give us money on our website we can spend it on supplies."

Tom Schlafly, a CRUDEM Board member and owner of St. Louis Brewery, has held fund raisers for the hospital and has begun planning for more.

"I can confidently say that money given to CRUDEM will not be wasted," he said. "The foundation has only 1.5 employees. It's about volunteers."  

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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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