Pure Medicine in the Harshest Conditions

Three local doctors go to work after disaster strikes in Haiti


“In one sense this was the purest form of medicine one can practice...There’s no advanced anything.”


When disaster strikes, television channels and social media sites buzz with activity for a few months, and then all goes quiet. We might remember the headlines, but perhaps not the many personal stories and their outcomes. Here, three local physicians share their experiences working in Haiti.


Orthopedic surgeon Dr. William Gallivan was in Florida when the earthquake struck in Haiti on January 12, 2010. Realizing that there would be need for his expertise, he expressed a desire to help. Within 12 days after making inquiries he joined a medical team on a flight to the island. His first impression upon landing was, “What have I gotten myself into?”


William Gallivan, David Vierra, and Daniel Craviotto


Dr. Gallivan was stationed in Jacmel in southern Haiti. A town of 40,000 people, it suffered damage to 70 percent of its homes, about 500 deaths and 4,000 injured. Working out of an eye hospital, the team began treating patients, most of whom had open wounds and fractures. Within two weeks of the quake the little facility had tended about 500 fractures.



“We take for granted our instrumentation, the high-tech things we use. In Haiti they just had a hodgepodge of plates and screws that looked like your toolbox at home.”



Commenting on what they had to work with, Dr. Gallivan says, “We were pretty self-contained as far as personnel, but there was a great difference between their hospital and what we are blessed with at Cottage. Thankfully Cottage loaned us instruments—things I never have to use here like hand saws for amputations.”


Despite not knowing each other, this surgical team was soon working well together to do whatever was needed. A talented neurosurgeon, for example, served as an instrument technician, sterilizing equipment for the team because he didn’t have the tools to perform brain or spine surgery.


With flies buzzing around the operating room, patient names taped to their foreheads, high infection rates, no X-Ray machine and the injured sleeping on mats outside the front door, Dr. Gallivan commented that in a sense it was not the practice of medicine one might wish for.


What stayed with him? “Our last case was a mother who gave birth to twins. That was just wonderful,” says Dr. Gallivan. “It was a great note to leave on.”


Eight months later, doctors Daniel Craviotto and David Vierra responded to an opportunity to serve as part of a mission to Haiti. Headed to Hospital Bernard Mevs in Port-au-Prince, their team was coordinated by Project Medishare, an affiliate of the University of Miami.


Had Dr. Vierra ever done anything like this before? “When I told my wife I was going to Haiti, she was like, ‘Who are you?’” he replies with a chuckle. “I had never done anything like this. But when Dr. Craviotto mentioned it, I knew I should go.”


Dr. Vierra is an anesthesiologist and spent most of his time in Haiti working in emergency and operating rooms, but he also helped Dr. Craviotto, an orthopedic surgeon. Eight months after the quake, the conditions caused by the earth- quake were still producing patients.


One young man, for example, was clearing rubble around his house when he was blown off a wall and impaled on rebar. He arrived at the hospital holding his intestines in his hands. “We repaired his wounds...even at that stage, probably 90 percent of the cases in the operating room were earthquake-related,” recalls Dr. Vierra.


Dr. Craviotto wanted to use his orthopedic skills. “But it wasn’t how I envisioned it; there was a lot of very rudimentary stuff,” he says. “We take for granted our instrumentation, the high-tech things we use. In Haiti they just had a hodge-podge of plates and screws that looked like your toolbox at home.”


“In one sense this was the purest form of medicine one can practice,” says Dr. Vierra. “There’s no advanced anything. You have to rely on training and clinical judgment. And it was great to see how our training kicked in, that we could make those decisions, and that most of the time we were right.”


Over a year later, all three physicians agree: “It was nice to be going home, the Haitians were so gracious and appreciative, and it was wonderful to enjoy such tremendous teamwork with so many highly skilled people from across north America.”


Dr. Gallivan was particularly struck by the great sense of loss that an earthquake delivers, and he remembers with amazement the spirit of the Haitian people: “There were many more smiles than tears, and a lot of dancing despite this awful situation.”



By Ian Vorster / Photo by Glenn Dubock


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