Monday, March 1, 2010

HOPE Volunteer Inspired by Strong Haitian Patients

Sheila Cardwell, an RN from St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, has participated in five volunteer missions with Project HOPE from Latin America to Southeast Asia. She most recently returned from Haiti, where she worked aboard the USNS Comfort caring for those injured in Haiti's January 12th earthquake. This is her story:

Throughout this past week I have had many opportunities to assist Haitians who were victims of one of the world's worst earthquakes. I worked primarily as a post op surgery nurse on a unit which concentrated more on adults receiving surgery.

Most of our victims had broken legs and arms requiring extensive surgery with external and internal pins. Some had traumatic wounds which required skin grafts or amputations of one or more extremities and many required all three: skin grafts, amputations and pins on breaks. The average healing time for most of these traumas is from 6-8 weeks at which time they have their pins, casts or braces removed and rehab starts. No matter what their injuries were, they all remained stoic and never complained as they struggled to remain independent.

For several days I noticed a young 23-year-old man (the same age as my son) caring for his 71-year-old grandmother who had a broken left arm-- requiring external pins-- and severe cuts on her head from the cement walls collapsing on her. He stayed at her bedside anxiously waiting to meet any of her needs. He fed her food and water, turned her from side to side when she requested and transferred her to the chair to sit up. I was so impressed with his attentiveness and ability to anticipate such new requests being made by his previously very independent grandmother.

I took a few minutes to acknowledge him for all his hard work. As a tear rolled down his cheek, he quietly and shyly told me his story. When the earthquake happened he grabbed his grandma and tried to run out of the building with her. As he put his head down he said "she couldn't run as fast as I could." As he ran the wall collapsed on his whole family including his grandmother. A week later he saw her face on CNN. He searched for her and found her on a cot beside many others. It had been a week and she had not had her arm or head evaluated by a medical person. He brought her to our ship where our doctors diagnosed her arm to be broken with lots of necrotic tissue.

The orthopedic specialist thought he would have to amputate but he did everything to save it. She now has 6 external pins and a skin graft from her thigh was placed on her arm to replace the skin she lost in the earthquake. Her wounds on her head required packing with gauze dressings to heal. After several weeks she had gained enough strength to walk again. The circulation in her arm started to improve. His grandma was the only family he had left and I believe if all continues to progress her grandson will have many years with her.

Beside her lay 22-year-old Darlene who was not so fortunate. She lay under the rubble for over a week before she was pulled out. She lost both her arms and due to nerve damage was unable to stand on her right leg. In spite of all this she continues to get herself out of bed and tries to walk with her one good leg. Her smile and stoic way continue to keep her positive spirit focused on healing and being so pleasant. Yesterday we made a special brace for her foot which would fit into shoes which we gave her. With this shoe support she is able to stand and soon she will learn to walk with the numbness of her leg. Throughout the unit the Haitian people quickly became friends and it was difficult to know who the individual families were because they all supported and helped each other in meeting their needs.

Today most of the Haitian patients left our ship. As I gave Darlene a hug goodbye I wondered how she would manage going back to the disastrous area where she came from. She had no one but her mother and a younger brother who survived. We discharged her to a rehab facility where she will learn to live with her amputations through rehab. I feared for her but she continued to have her beautiful smile and strong spirit. She was anxious to return to her people.

As we Project Hope nurses left the ship to return to the US we drove past miles and miles of tents on the sidewalks which lined the main road. Some of the tents were donated to the Haitians but many were simply sheets and blankets put together to make a tent. One tent supported the next leaving no space between them. Folks wandered around with their dressings on and some had casts and crutches but all seemed to have that despair and grief associated with poverty and disaster.

When I look at these folks who have lost their entire families and communities I wonder as they lay in bed with amputated extremities, broken legs and arms and horrible wounds from walls collapsing on them, where they get their strength to remain so stoic and grateful for everything we are doing for them. On occasion I see someone put their head down and quietly shed tears without saying a word. Very few share the pain and one can see their inner strength as they worry about where they will go and how they will manage when they leave the Comfort ship.

Haiti will continue to need lots of assistance from everyone to help build their country up and improve the health of their communities. Project HOPE is presently developing long-term plans to help Haitians continue to receive necessary medical care. I look forward to participating in future programs.

Help HOPE provide long-term medical relief in Haiti. DONATE NOW

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