I recently returned from my first trip to Haiti, which was also my first experience with relief work. Two big firsts. As a family nurse practitioner in outpatient community clinic settings, without a background in acute care, I didn’t know if my skills would be useful. But as it turned out, my opportunity to go to Haiti was not until a full three months after the earthquake, and I had plenty to do. I would love to hear from other nurses who have experience doing relief work. I had always been interested in the idea but never acted upon it, as I assumed my lack of ER/trauma/ortho/ICU experience precluded my participation. Instead, I volunteered in several other countries, engaging in public and community health projects which were wonderful. Yet I was surprised by how at home I felt in a field hospital Haiti, post-earthquake.
The opportunity came serendipitously as my employer, Boston Health Care for the Homeless, already had an established relationship with Hospital Sacre Coeur in Milot, Haiti. After the earthquake, we began sending teams of 3-4 people on weekly rotations. Hospital Sacre Coeur is a 73-bed hospital that exploded to nearly 400 beds, as survivors were helicoptered in from Port-au-Prince. Quickly, six field hospitals and nearby classrooms were set up to accommodate patients.
By the time I arrived, hundreds of surgeries had been performed, some patients did not make it, and many had already recovered and been discharged. On my first day, we were briefly oriented, I was then assigned to a 36-bed tent (not including patients’ families), and I began rounding. My second day included taking care of patients with new amputations, external fixators, decubitous ulcers, surgical wounds, casts, crutches, walkers and wheelchairs. I watched for and treated septic joints, failed skin grafts, and abscesses. On my third day I oriented a new volunteer. And although in some ways it felt like I jumped out of plane and was trying to figure out what to do, the depth of medical support and collegiality was incredible.
Again, I would love to hear from other nurses who’ve been to Haiti, or done similar relief work. It would be wonderful to learn from the experiences, insights and challenges.
For those interested in learning more about or volunteering at Hospital Sacre Coeur, please visit their website at www.crudem.org