Earthquake survivors begin a long journey to recovery

Haiti earthquake - Les Cayes

Haiti 2021 © Steven Aristil

Alert is a quarterly magazine published by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF-USA) that features stories and photography from our medical projects around the world. Below is an article from the Fall 2021 issue (Vol 21. No. 3), Surviving the Haiti Earthquake. If you would like to download a print version of this publication, click here.

In the wake of the earthquake, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been supporting hospitals and clinics with staff, supplies, reconstruction, and water and sanitation services.

More than a week after an earthquake destroyed his home and fractured the bones of his leg, Widnika, two years and seven months old, slept in a bed at the MSF Tabarre hospital in Port-au-Prince as his mother sat with him. Survivors such as Widnika have begun a long journey of recovery from physical and emotional trauma.

After Widnika’s family’s home collapsed, neighbors in their town of Camp-Perrin helped free him from the rubble, and his mother accompanied him first to a local hospital and then to MSF’s Tabarre hospital on the same day. For days, earthquake survivors from southern Haiti continued to arrive in the capital, Port-au-Prince, coming through the national ambulance system, by their own means of transportation, or on helicopters and planes that were rapidly called into service.

Haiti earthquake - Tabarre
Haiti 2021 © Steven Aristil/MSF

Making space to treat the injured in Port-au-Prince

In the Turgeau neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, MSF opened an emergency center the day of the quake to stabilize patients evacuated from the south. In the first eight days, the center treated 133 earthquake survivors and 152 other patients. Eighty-two patients were referred to local hospitals for further treatment or surgery. Twenty-seven of these patients were referred to MSF’s Tabarre hospital, which specializes in severe trauma or burns.

When the earthquake struck, most of the beds at the Tabarre hospital were already occupied with its existing burns and trauma patients. The hospital then received a total of 70 earthquake survivors in a matter of days, 48 of whom were admitted for surgery or other treatment. The needs exceeded the hospital’s normal capacity of 70 beds, and the staff invoked their disaster plan—adding 19 more beds in covered areas of the courtyard and elsewhere inside the building.

At Tabarre, Widnika underwent surgery. The bones of his lower leg were held in place by an external fixator—a medical rod installed outside his shin—to help them grow back together. Widline, his mother, expressed appreciation for the care provided to her son and sadness at the prospect of returning to a home that was destroyed. Their town, Camp-Perrin, is a five-hour drive from Port-au-Prince in normal times, and now roads are damaged across the region, making any travel much harder.

Haiti earthquake - Tabarre
Haiti earthquake - Tabarre

Several victims of the earthquake were transferred to receive treatment at the Tabarre trauma center, a facility that was reopened by MSF in 2019. Haiti 2021 © Steven Aristil/MSF

Patients need lengthy follow-up care

The many medical, psychological, and practical challenges that patients and their families face pose thorny problems for the hospital staff who are responsible for ensuring that patients will have the care they require in the coming weeks and months. In southern Haiti, health facilities were damaged or destroyed, making it difficult to provide the follow-up care that many earthquake survivors need.

“We are in the process of making contact with other organizations to ensure they can continue physiotherapy and psychological care when our patients return to their home communities,” explains Dr. Kanoute Dialla, MSF’s coordinator of the Tabarre hospital. “It is essential that patients with bone fractures have regular medical consultations to monitor how their bones are healing and make adjustments if necessary. We must assess whether hospitals have the capacity for radiography and other aspects of this care.”

There are many logistical challenges as well. Traveling from southern Haiti back to Tabarre is very difficult, as roads have been heavily damaged by landslides. Many earthquake survivors have temporary or permanent disabilities as a result of their injuries, making such travel all the more arduous.

Haiti earthquake - Turgeau emergency center
Haiti 2021 © Steven Aristil/MSF

Finding patients a place to stay

  Elvie Pierre, a social worker at Tabarre hospital, keeps patients connected with their families, who are a crucial source of emotional support. “Does anyone know you are in the hospital?” she regularly asks, getting out her phone if a call is needed. As patients’ conditions improve and they prepare to be discharged, she asks if they have relatives that they can stay with in the city as they continue outpatient treatment.

Yet staying in Port-au-Prince for the long term is not an option for some patients. Many patients, coming from hours away, do not know anyone in the city. Lodgings in Port-au-Prince are often quite small, Pierre notes, and it can be difficult for relatives to accommodate an extra person. MSF erected a tent in the hospital compound for discharged patients who cannot stay elsewhere.

“Given that the care of patients with trauma must continue with good post-operative follow-up, physiotherapy, and psychological support, our teams want to be reassured that everything will be set up in the south before our patients return there,” explains Dr. Alain Ngamba, MSF medical coordinator in Haiti. “Before finding more long-term solutions, we plan to keep some patients here in Port-au-Prince by providing their accommodations to allow them to continue their care in our hospital in Tabarre.”

MSF emergency teams in affected areas of the south will help assess whether medical facilities in the region can provide follow-up care, Ngamba says.

For young Widnika, questions about when to return to Camp-Perrin and what awaits him there are left for another day. As the boy lies in his hospital bed, he momentarily opens his bright eyes and looks around the hospital room, finding his mother’s gaze before settling back to sleep.

As with many earthquake survivors, his healing process is now underway, but it may be a long one. Achieving a full recovery will depend on many kinds of support and perseverance.

Fall 2021: Responding to the Haiti earthquake

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