In Haiti, Palm Beach volunteers help amid broken buildings, bruised hearts
A West Palm lawyer, Sean Pean and a frantic rush to save baby Jude
By JOHN LANTIGUA
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 8:26 p.m. Sunday, July 4, 2010
Posted: 7:13 p.m. Sunday, July 4, 2010
Jude Brena, 6 months old, was asleep on a bed on the afternoon of Jan. 12 when the roof collapsed.
An aunt and a cousin caring for him were killed in the house and relatives thought Jude was dead, too, buried like tens of thousands of others beneath the rubble caused by the massive Haiti earthquake.
But more than a day later, crying was heard under that crumbled concrete. The family frantically dug him out. Jude was alive, but had suffered a severe head wound.
That is where Mirta Desir entered the story. Desir, 27, is a Haitian-American attorney living in West Palm Beach. Within hours of the quake, through an aid organization called Link Haiti, she began assembling emergency medical teams to travel to the disaster zone.
Volunteer work in Haiti, especially in those first days right after the quake, was not for the weak of heart.
Palm Beach County volunteers saved lives and limbs and they have tales of triumph to tell. But even veteran medical personnel saw a volume of suffering unknown to them. For those without medical backgrounds, it could be even more bruising.
Their accounts of post-quake Haiti are emotional, full of victories and defeats.
Baby Jude was eventually brought to the Link Haiti medical clinic in Carrefour, the epicenter of the quake.
"We thought right away he might be very badly injured," Desir recalls. "He had this bad lump and just the way his little head was hanging to one side. There was a good chance his skull was fractured."
The Link Haiti mobile clinic could not provide the care Jude needed. So the team put him and his mother, Magda, in a vehicle and embarked on a desperate search throughout Port-au-Prince for someone to save the child.
At the University of Miami Medical School's Medishare tent hospital, their diagnosis was confirmed. An X-ray revealed a skull fracture.
But they also met frustration. Jude was too badly injured for that temporary facility. Brain surgery was beyond the staff there.
"They were overwhelmed," Desir says. "If you weren't critical enough they wouldn't help you, because they had people worse off. But if you were too critical, they couldn't help you either."
The Medishare staff tried to get Jude transferred to the USS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship and trauma center anchored off Haiti. But the ship was full.
If he stays, he will die
With Jude's chances dimming, Desir and her crew searched for another hospital that might provide the surgery. They had no luck.
Late that night, they arrived at a facility run by the U.S. doctors belonging to the federal Disaster Management Assistance Team - DMAT. Staff there laid it on the line.
"If you leave the baby here, we'll have to discharge him, because we can't help him," a nurse told Desir. "And if we discharge him, he'll die."
The doctor on duty, a Boston trauma surgeon named Sue Briggs, also was blunt.
"If he stays in Haiti, he will die," she told Desir. "You need to get him out of here."
But Desir knew that was nearly impossible. After an initial rush to ship injured out of the country, medical evacuation flights to Florida had been suspended. They couldn't get Jude on a plane.
Past midnight, Desir and a colleague left the mother and child at the DMAT facility, feeling no way existed to save the baby. They went to the bar of the Plaza Hotel in downtown Port-au-Prince to drown their sorrows.
"It was like 1 in the morning and I needed a drink," Desir says. "More than one drink."
But that was where the story took a turn toward hope.
Seated at the next table was Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn, who was in Haiti to organize relief efforts. Desir decided she had nothing to lose, approached Penn, told him Jude's story and said if they didn't get help, the child would die.
"How do you know he's going to die?" Penn asked.
Desir told him Briggs' prognosis. It turned out that Penn also had met Briggs, been impressed with her, and trusted her opinion.
By the next day, with Penn pulling strings, Jude was flown by helicopter to the USS Comfort. The surgery he needed was performed.
Accompanied by his mother, he stayed aboard for several weeks, recovering. He was then transferred for another month to a hospital in Cap Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city, outside the quake zone.
The return to Carrefour
Meanwhile, Desir had posted Jude's photo on her Link Haiti website.
It joined two other Link success stories from the quake. One was Daphne Jean Joseph, 13, who had suffered head and chest injuries and received surgery that saved her life.
Another was Catalina Augustin, 3, who arrived at a Link Haiti clinic not badly injured. But an examination had revealed that she suffered from an enlarged heart that would kill her before long.
Link Haiti had arranged for her to fly to South Florida, where she was operated on. She stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Miami at first, and is continuing her recovery with relatives in Boynton Beach.
But Desir was most proud of her group's role in saving little Jude.
When Palm Beach Post journalists recently arrived in Haiti, Desir decided they had to meet him.
After being released from the second hospital, Jude had been taken by his mother back to Carrefour, a devastated, desperately poor area.
Desir had been trying to reach them for weeks by cellphone, but received no answer. So she went searching for them. Her quest took her up a twisting, steep, rocky mountainside road, bordered by ruined buildings and families living under flimsy tarps. It was a long, slow climb through dust, destruction and poverty.
She traveled by SUV and, when the road ended, on foot. She finally arrived at night at the family home, a tent with no electricity or running water nearby.
She asked for the child.
"Jude is dead," she was told by a woman named Maude, the boy's aunt.
The boy had died shortly after arriving back in Carrefour. His parents were no longer there.
Maude could not give an exact cause of death, but the surroundings supplied an answer. Despite the greatest efforts of Desir, Link Haiti, Penn and U.S. medical personnel, Jude was unable to survive the dire poverty of Haiti.
Desir was in disbelief.
She yelled into the night: "HOW COULD HE DIE?" Then she caught herself.
"Of course he could die," she said to no one in particular. "It happens here every day."
On the way back to the capital, in the back seat of the SUV, Desir wept silently. At 27, she was young for such lessons.
But by the next morning, she had composed herself and was preparing to receive her next medical mission.
"The work goes on," she told a caller in a voice drained of emotion.
"The work goes on."
STORIES FROM HAITI
X-ray confirms fears, and hunt for surgeon is on
A Haitian-American, he established a trauma clinic in a badly damaged sector of Port-au-Prince five days after the quake. That same night, a young woman arrived in critical condition.
Her name was Solange, and her broken arm and broken ankle were both badly infected. She hadn’t been treated since the quake and she was in danger of dying of sepsis, as thousands of other victims already had. She was emaciated, and Dorsainvil helped her drink from a can of Ensure nutritional supplement.
‘She looked up at me and said in Creole, “Thank you, doctor. That is the first time I’ve eaten anything in five days.” ’
‘When she said that I simply started to cry,’ says Dorsainvil, 53, who had treated hundreds of patients in his career without crying.
‘The number of badly injured people we found there was overwhelming. What we were seeing was like nothing any of us had ever experienced.’
Dorsainvil also recalls the young man with the mangled leg who was carried into his center days later. Jacques Laura, 28, had been told at another medical facility that the limb had to be amputated. He refused, left, and showed up at Dorsainvil’s door.
A nine-person Palm Beach County medical team, led by orthopedic surgeon Harvey Montijo, labored for hours and saved the leg.
‘We went back in March to attend patients,’ recalls Dorsainvil. ‘The young man came to see us and he danced with Dr. Montijo.
‘He danced! You should have seen him. Oh, yes, we had our victories.’
A child’s heartbreaking story; a nation’s overwhelming need
He traveled to Haiti about 10 days after the quake with a medical team assembled by Link Haiti.
Hujber, 39, an immigration attorney with Haitian clients, says he performed any task the medical personnel needed — erecting tents, applying eye drops, carrying the injured.
One day, a family arrived at the Link Haiti mobile unit in Carrefour with a boy, about 10, who in the hours right after the quake had a leg amputated — without anesthetic. Now he needed more medical attention.
‘But the moment he saw the doctors and nurses in their medical scrubs, he started to scream and scream,’ Hujber recalls. ‘He was absolutely terrified. This kid had no trust in us. None at all. It was horrible. I’ll never forget those screams.’
But Hujber also recalls a woman brought into the Link Haiti mobile clinic many days after the quake ‘in her 60s, maybe 70, injured, unable to walk, dehydrated and malnourished.’
She was extremely weak, her breath shallow, and it was decided she would only survive if transferred to a better-equipped field hospital in at the United Nations compound near the Port-au-Prince airport.
The trip across the city from the Link Haiti clinic was long, hot and hectic. ‘I didn’t even think she would survive the truck ride,’ Hujber says. ‘That’s how weak she was.’
When they arrived at the compound, they were kept at a distance from the medical facilities.
‘I carried her in my arms to the tent hospital, about 300 yards,’ Hujber says. ‘She couldn’t have weighed 90 pounds. I’m 6-foot-3, 230, so it wasn’t hard. But I was thinking they might not take her at the hospital because of her age and her condition. If they didn’t, she would die for sure. She could have died right there in my arms.’
But the field hospital did accept her and Hujber learned later that she had survived.
‘Given all the Haitian clients I’ve had, just watching CNN and sending money wouldn’t have been enough,’ he says. ‘I’m very glad I went.’
Find this article at: