Wednesday, April 14, 2010

White Tank Top Elbow Gang Brings Smiles to Volunteers in Haiti

It's an unlikely gang. Their uniform: white tank tops and arm slings. Their mark: pieces of medical tape stuck to their foreheads reading NPO (a Latin acronym meaning "do not feed," a common pre-op instruction). They roam the halls of the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) together sometimes holding IV bags for each other. They are about 8- years-old and are affectionately known as the White Tank Top Elbow Gang by Project HOPE volunteers working in the OR.

"The boys know a few words in English so they always say 'hello' and ask our names," relates HOPE volunteer, RN Tina Bergstrom, an OR nurse from Massachusetts General Hospital. "But the curious thing is that all four have elbow fractures."

Fellow HOPE volunteer, Dr. Tom Witschi, an orthopedic surgeon practicing at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, NY, has a theory. “It's mango season,” he says. “When the mangos are ripe, the kids climb the trees to get them. And what happens when kids climb trees? Sometimes they fall.”

Bergstrom, Witschi and RN Michelle Wall-Kerwin, another HOPE volunteer and Massachusetts General OR nurse, have spent much of their first week at HAS helping to set pins in these little elbows. The injuries, which might be set in a cast back at home, are requiring surgery thanks to the lag time from injury to medical care.

With only a few days notice, the HOPE trio has been working together since they arrived-- on Easter Sunday-- to help relieve the OR staff.

The hospital's two general surgeons are supplemented by teams like this one from Project HOPE, which provide expertise or simply a fresh perspective. But even with most of the earthquake victims out of the critical care phase, Witschi points to cases like these to emphasize the hospital's need for more staff, including a full-time orthopedic surgeon.

"We're supposed to be helping the surgeons with their operations here, teaching as we go along, but they are so busy that we're being given many of the surgeries to do ourselves," says Witschi.
Today the team operated on a 21-year-old male patient with a tibia fracture suffered in the earthquake. After the surgery, which involved cleaning the wound and removing dead tissue from around the infected leg, the patient's body began to shudder, possibly a symptom of septic shock according to Witschi. The patient had already undergone multiple skin and muscle grafts and been fitted with external bone fixators. "Unfortunately, what this man needs is an amputation," says Witschi.

The three volunteers admit that while the week has not been without its challenges, they are positive about their mission and the role they are filling at the hospital.

"I told my husband that I really NEEDED to go," says Wall-Kerwin, who has been on similar medical missions with other organizations to Ecuador, Chile and Peru. "When you leave countries like Haiti after doing this kind of thing, you feel like you really helped someone.”

The team will be at HAS another week.

Story and photos by photojournalist and HOPE volunteer, Allison Shelley.

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