We saved their lives, but that's all they have left

Back in Dubai after a five-day mission to Haiti, surgeon Dr Marc Sinclair says it is vital that the world does not forget the plight of the people who lost everything in moments.

DUBAI // Dr Marc Sinclair has one memory that will continue to haunt him after his recent mission to earthquake-ravaged Haiti - it is the look in the eyes of a 30-year-old female patient. She had just had her leg amputated below the knee and was grasping the hand of her crying, six-year-old child, as she was told that she was now discharged and free to leave the crowded Community Hospital in the suburbs of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

The look screamed out: "But I have nowhere to go." Dr Sinclair, a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon based at Medcare Hospital in Dubai, said: "Even though we may have saved the lives of these people and are now wheeling them out of the hospital in wheelchairs, they have still suffered through an earthquake that took away their families, sometimes both their legs, and on top of that, their home.

"They have nothing, and they have to leave the hospital to make room for other patients. In all their eyes you see the same questions: 'Where do I go? Do you have a tent for me? Is there any food? Do I really have nothing?'" Dr Sinclair, now back in Dubai, is determined not to forget. As Haiti gradually slips from world headlines, he stressed that aid, in all its various manifestations, was still desperately needed for the people of the shattered Caribbean country.

After an appeal in The National last month for surgeons, paediatricians, nurses and anaesthetists to volunteer their services and join him on a voluntary week-long mission to tend to the children of Haiti, Dr Sinclair put together a team of 10. It comprised two other orthopaedic surgeons from the UAE, his anaesthetist brother from Germany, four nurses from the US and two nurses from the UAE, and left for Haiti on February 1.

The Oasis Hospital in Al Ain helped pay the team's airfare, donations and fundraising efforts helped kit them out, and there was also vital co-ordination between the Little Wings Foundation, a charity set up by Dr Sinclair to help children with limb deformities, and Cure International, a non-profit organisation treating children in developing countries, which had set up the surgical clinic in Haiti.

Thirty-six hours later, after a harrowing journey that included a chartered plane flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince, the team began its five-day mission. Over that time they would work 15 hours a day treating the horrific injuries and ailments not only of children, but anyone who needed medical aid. The Community Hospital where they were based normally treats no more than 40 or 50 patients at a time. During the team's five-day stint there were at least 160 being cared for at any one time.

"Immediately after the earthquake," said Dr Sinclair, "that particular hospital had more than 500 patients in need of medical care." Patients lined the hospital's hallways and hung around its doorways, and parents and children camped on donated mattresses that were pushed against the walls. The hospital has only two operating rooms, neither of which have X-ray machines, so two other rooms were turned into makeshift surgical theatres.

"Our team was operating two operating rooms for five days, all day - a surgeon in each and the third surgeon supervising and co-ordinating," said Dr Sinclair. "There was a plastic surgery team from the US who were also really busy repairing skin flaps, burns, wounds, lots of that type of work." The team operated on at least 12 patients a day. "In numbers it may not sound that big, but you have to consider the circumstances," he said.

Surgical equipment was piled on two large tables in a room and doctors had to dig through what looked like a mound of "cutlery" to find the instruments they would need in surgery. "We then had to sterilise the equipment ourselves, transport it to the operating room, transport patients there as well - it was not a normal working environment." Dr Sinclair estimates that 60 per cent of the patients his team treated required amputations.

"Amputees are the big group, and Haiti is going to see a generation of thousands of amputees over the coming years," he said. "If you think to yourself that 300,000 people died, you wonder how many of those who survived end up amputated, either both arms or both legs or one or more of their limbs." What was needed were wheelchairs, crutches and people who would keep travelling to Haiti as well as good artificial limbs and prosthetics to give those people who had survived a better chance at life.

The desperate need was no longer for medical supplies, he stressed. "Medication is there in abundance. The hospital we were working at had probably never seen this many medicines at any one time. The problem is disorganisation, which leads to rooms filled with boxes that go unattended." When treating patients, any of the medical volunteers who needed supplies or medication would simply head off to one of the storage rooms and rummage through the boxes until they found what they needed.

"There is a lot of goodwill and a lot of volunteers with a lot of expertise there trying to help, but no one is managing or organising the efforts. That is needed more than anything," he said. In the weeks, months and years ahead, a large responsibility would fall upon the media to ensure Haiti remained in the spotlight and continued to receive the aid it needed, Dr Sinclair said. "If it's not made a splash in the media, then it is not in people's mind.

"But regardless of whether it makes a good story or not, wheelchairs and crutches are still needed, tents and homes for the displaced are needed, continuous volunteers are needed. "There is a crucial need to maintain awareness, because even after we treat patients medically, there is still the question of how exactly will they ever be able to survive having lost everything." When the time came for Dr Sinclair's colleagues and the US team to pull out, they all decided to leave their belongings behind.

"We had slept on the roof of the hospital the entire time, in tents or under mosquito netting, because there's just nowhere else," said Dr Sinclair. "We were begged and cajoled for those tents and belongings, which are desperately needed in Haiti. "I even gave away my shoes." @Email:hkhalaf@thenational.ae