Compound fractures, tetanus, sepsis, amputations, external fixators and severe wounds were the normal daily findings aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort for Operation Unified Response, Haiti. As a med/surg nurse volunteer for Project HOPE, I knew I was in for the most challenging ordeal of my career and life when I stepped aboard the ship. I will never forget the sounds, sights and smells as I entered the ward for my first assignment: numerous critically injured patients, people crying out in pain and the smell of infection. There were 32 patients and two nurses. I was the third nurse, and we had four U.S. Navy corpsmen to assist us. Together the Navy and Project HOPE volunteers worked to bring relief to the Haitians.
Settling in quickly, I busied myself with whatever needed to be done. Pain and infections had to be controlled; patients waited patiently in their beds, asking for pain relief or water. The injuries they endured were astronomical. Approximately 98% of the patients on the ward had external fixators and several were eventually transferred to the U.S. for wound flaps for their severe wounds.
The Haitians resilience astounded me. Not only were did they have critical injuries, but also the majority of patients didnt know if their families were alive. Crying and singing for each other became a routine part of their recovery process. Heartfelt gratitude came in the form of a quickly learned thank you in English and hugs. As the patients were healing, smiles were in abundance.Angela Portillo, RN
Survival stories were all around. One patient stands out in my mind. She was seven months pregnant when the earthquake struck and her house fell in on her, breaking her water and fracturing her pelvis. For 10 days she was unable to deliver her baby. When the Comfort arrived, she was airlifted to the ship, an emergency C-section was performed and her pelvis was fixated. The patient endured a severe uterine infection, broken pelvis and a sore incision site from her C-section. The physicians thought her baby would not survive. After a detailed discussion with the patient about the small chance of her daughters survival, it was decided to unhook her baby from the respirator. The baby surprised everyone when she began breathing on her own. Every day the baby improved, and her mother grew stronger and stronger. Rosner learned to use crutches and would do her daily physical therapy exercises. After a couple of weeks, with her external fixator removed and her baby doing better, both were discharged to an onshore rehabilitation center.
Another mother, whose teenage son was a patient of mine, said to me, You are my hero. I told her, No, I am not a hero; you and the Haitian people are the heroes. I am just one of the many small stepping stones to help Haiti and her people get better.
With tears in her eyes she hugged me tight. Mother to mother we understood what didnt need to be said.