An MSF surgical team worked nonstop to treat the injured

Haiti earthquake - surgery at Saint Antoine hospital, Jérémie

Haiti 2021 © Steven Aristil/AFP

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.

Xavier Kernizan is a Haitian orthopedic surgeon who normally works at the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Tabarre hospital in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Just hours after the August 14 earthquake hit, he rushed to respond to the emergency. Xavier was part of an MSF surgical team sent to Jérémie to treat serious injuries, including bone fractures.

Where were you when the earthquake struck?

I was returning home from MSF’s Tabarre hospital, and I felt the road shaking. At first I didn’t think it was a very powerful earthquake. It was afterward that I started to receive photos and images of what happened. I saw an informal discussion in an MSF chat group that we could send a team. I told our medical activity manager that if MSF needed an orthopedic surgeon, I was available. And he said we would be leaving at 2:00 p.m.

Everything was ready then, and we left on the road for Les Cayes. The most stressful point was to pass through the Martissant neighborhood to reach the road to the southern region affected by the earthquake. There are armed clashes in the area, and we heard worrying reports that raised our stress level.

What was the situation that you found in the south? 

The first place we arrived was the town of Les Cayes. It made a big impression. It brought me back to the 2010 earthquake, because it was practically the same kind of destruction—homes completely collapsed, rubble in the streets. There were places where we could not pass at all, where we had to find another way. We spent our first night in Les Cayes before moving on. A colleague of ours was already supporting the operating theater at the hospital there.

Haiti earthquake - Les Cayes general hospital

Full beds at the general hospital in Les Cayes, where MSF helped provide supplies and medical care following the earthquake. 

The next morning we left for Jérémie. Before we reached Riviere Glace, we saw that the road was blocked by a landslide. We already knew that the road was blocked, but no one could tell us whether a car could squeeze through the rocks there. We exited the vehicle and took photos of how rocks blocked the road for at least a kilometer. Then we had a little scare because we were close to the cliff, and then there was an aftershock, and a few stones came down. We turned back to Les Cayes, and finally we took a helicopter to reach Jérémie.

How did you respond to the needs in Jérémie? 

The first difficulty we had was to make contact, to know who we should see. Because no one knew who we were and what we were here to do. It took a day and a half before we could really work.

The personnel at Saint Antoine hospital did extraordinary work with the few staff and resources they had. Many patients were already cleaned and their wounds were debrided when we arrived. Some had external fixators to set broken bones, and some patients had already been referred to Port-au-Prince by air. A number of doctors who were originally from this region also returned from their jobs elsewhere to support the hospital.

So when we arrived, we asked, “What can we do for you?” We picked up where they started. We operated on many patients. Sunday [August 15] we had four patients, Monday we had nine patients, and after that 10 to 12 patients per day. Generally we left the hospital between 11:00 p.m. and midnight, in order to see the maximum number of patients. So we were shrinking the pool of patients waiting for treatment, waiting for surgery.

By the second week, the majority of our patients were ones who we had already seen, coming back for a debridement, a new surgery, or a cast. But there were still people from the backcountry, where there was no help, who were coming to Jérémie for emergency care.

In the first four weeks, the MSF surgical team in Jérémie treated 94 patients for injuries suffered in the August 14 earthquake, performing 136 surgeries and applying casts or splints. MSF also provides surgical care to earthquake survivors at its Tabarre hospital in Port-au-Prince and at Hôpital Immaculée Conception in Les Cayes.

Fall 2021: Responding to the Haiti earthquake

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