Doctors see will to survive amid 'stench of death'
Health team shares stories with donors, volunteers on Haiti relief trip
Palo Alto physicians displayed heart-wrenching photos of Haitians in a "thank you" presentation Tuesday night to volunteers and donors who supported a recent medical relief trip there.
A team of 13 doctors and nurses from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Stanford Hospital & Clinics, Kaiser Permanente and the City of San Francisco told stories of Haitians rallying for survival, amid the stench of death, after losing children, spouses, parents and homes.
"There is unlimited need, and there are amazing stories of care and compassion," said trip organizer Dr. Enoch Choi, a physician in Palo Alto Medical Foundation's Urgent Care Department.
Choi and others described their frenzied, bootstrap efforts to assemble the trip — including support from Palo Alto schoolchildren and a wide array of community donors and volunteers — following Haiti's 7.0 earthquake Jan. 12. The Haitian government has put the death toll at 230,000 people, and international agencies say as many as 3 million people have been affected by the disaster.
Choi is organizing health-care teams to go to Haiti each month for a week of service.
The first group, which included Choi, worked in Port-au-Prince from Feb. 15 to Feb. 21, and shared their experiences Tuesday night in the Palo Alto living room of Gary and Rona Chevsky.
A second team with 15 members, mostly doctors and nurses from Palo Alto Medication Foundation and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, is in Haiti this week.
"When the earthquake first happened I thought, 'No, I won't go,' said Choi, who had performed medical relief work following Hurricane Katrina and the wildfires in San Diego. "But over time we saw great need.
"There were so many physicians and nurses who wanted to go but couldn't take a whole month off, which is what (relief agencies) were asking.
"So we decided to start an organization to send medical professionals for short-term missions. The idea is to mobilize and send folks quickly after a disaster, not only to provide medical relief, but spiritual care. And also to disseminate best practices through technology and other means."
Dr. Steven Lane, a Palo Alto Medical Foundation leader in electronic-health records, tested an electronic health-record system deployed through iPhones during the February trip.
Lane's test was part of a larger effort by Harvard University and the United Nations to create an international standard for electronic health records in disasters around the world.
Such a system could create a database, dramatically improving efficiency and saving lives and money by electronically matching up real-time needs with available resources.
San Francisco internist and blogger Jan Gurley, another member of the February team, told of a gasping baby, near death from pneumonia and dehydration. She watched him recover after treatment like a time-lapse photograph of a flower blooming.
Haitians have established "homes" in the median strip of what had been a four-lane road, Gurley said.
"There's no raised median — just a strip of concrete," Gurley said. "They've taken over the median and two lanes. And it's not like the vehicles are going by at 2 mph. They're going by fast.
"There's tremendous need everywhere, and in the middle of the devastation also a weird normalcy, with people setting up shops and selling things."
Palo Alto Medical Foundation internist Jeffrey Croke said the doctors and nurses in many cases interpreted not just the medical symptoms of the quake victims but their very experiences.
He told of an amputee who had injured her leg after rushing back into a building to grab her 2-year-old.
"She was wondering whether she was ever going to walk again or whether she would ever get out of the tent city," Croke said.
"I told her she was a hero (by rescuing her child); that her life was made in that moment; that she would forever be a hero. I was able to help her interpret that."
Physical therapist Cheryl Bencala told of a spontaneous outbreak of song among sick and dying patients in a tent hospital.
"At the end of the day I hadn't eaten or had any water. A nurse shared her water with me. We were sitting down for a quick break and all of sudden this incredible a capella singing starts in the tent next to me.
"These people are on IVs, with drainpipes coming out of them because of lung infections, and all of a sudden there's this whole chorus of 'Great Is Thy Faithfulness.'
"This was a sign to me that Haiti's going to make it out of this situation because they still have hope," said Bencala, who plans to return to Haiti with the April team.
Choi said 42 health professionals have indicated an interest in traveling over the next two months, and airline tickets have been purchased for 14 of them.
Besides Choi, Lane, Gurley, Croke and Bencala, the February team included vascular surgeon Chong Lee and intensive-care nurse Melinda Porter of Kaiser; cardiologist James Freeman and nurses Tom and Jacque Major of Stanford; University of Michigan medical student and Stanford graduate David Chao; Randy Roberson of Telehelp.org and Jesse Mendoza of Jordan International Aid.
The current team in Haiti includes physicians Meg Durbin, Susan Gay Anderson, Philip Strong and Thomas W. McDonald and nurse-practitioner Jenny Bauer of PAMF; physician Jim Laroy and nurses Vanessa Valdez, Cynthia Stewart, Carlee Stewart, Alexandra Norrlof, Kaveri Mozumder, Wendy Carolina Miyares and Eden Jackson of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital; Mendoza of Jordan International Aid and Pastor Steven Moran.
Choi thanked a host of community organizations, including many local elementary and middle schools, the Palo Alto Menlo Park Parents Club, local business donors and his own church, Abundant Life Christian Fellowship of Mountain View, which he said was the fiscal agent for the February group.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.