Surgical Mission in Haiti a Memorable Experience

Published in Medical Professionals

Imagine yourself in a third world country practicing medicine. The medical compound serves 30,000 or more people that depend on one medical staff person and traveling surgical teams to help people in need of care.

In April 2011, Dr. Kevin Unger, a Urologist at ACMC in Willmar, gathered a team of local medical experts and traveled to the community of Limbe, Haiti. Joining Unger were OB/GYN, Dr. Glenn Buchanan, and Physician Assistant, Rose Nepsund, from ACMC-Willmar and General Surgeon, Dr. Tim Peterson from ACMC Litchfield, as well as Nurse Anesthetists Randy Lussenden from Morris and Jon Sovell from Ortonville.

Arriving in Haiti

The team flew into Cap-Haitien which is an area filled with poverty, filth and crowding; it is very destitute. For some of the team members that hadn’t traveled much it was very difficult to witness. From Cap-Haiten they went to Limbe, Haiti, an area that is known as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Here people have dirt floors, no running water, and no electricity. Teaching children to read is difficult since they don’t have enough light available and sending them to school is almost impossible. Most families in Limbe live on only $2 a day, and it costs $200 a year for a child to go to school.

After a ten mile bus ride that took one and a half hours on a national highway, they finally arrived at Hospital Bon Samaritan (HBS) medical compound, which is both a medical clinic and a hospital. Compared to other areas in Haiti, the compound looked like an Oasis to the group. HBS was founded in 1953, as a small, grass roots, Christian outpatient clinic and grew under the direction of the late William H. Hodges, M.D., to become one of Haiti’s principal health centers.  Today, this compound is run by Dr. Hodges’ 25 year old grandson.  The 130 bed facility operates year round at 90% capacity or more.

Back in Time

The differences between third world medicine and modern medicine were overwhelming. “Practicing in Haiti was like stepping back into the 1920’s. Supplies were limited and you had to be very MacGyver-like,” said Unger.   It was critical that the team working with you was able to perform complex surgeries with a very flexible and innovative mindset. The situations that we were faced with were very stressful and so it was important that our team could think and act quickly.”

It is common for patients to walk for miles and miles in their “Sunday finest” in search of medical care, living with disease and illness that could not be imagined in the United States. While they were there, a 14-year old young man came into the clinic with a cut on his hand from a machete. The boy died because he had a severe infection from Tetanus; you just don’t hear of that happening in the U.S. HBS relies on surgical mission teams because the Haitian medical staff have no surgical skills. The Haitian staff assists the visiting surgical teams by sorting through the patients so they can be seen in the medical clinic and be assessed as to whether they need surgery or not.

After surgery, 3-4 patients would be put into a room to recover. These rooms were crowded and extremely hot and humid, as there was no air conditioning. The beds were not comfortable and the rooms were not clean compared to rooms here in the US. Family members helped out with the post-op nursing care by managing IV fluids and oral pain medications. They also stayed in the rooms with their loved ones and would sleep by their side on the concrete floors. Language was a barrier, but the surgical team had a nurse named Jonas that helped out as an interpreter. Jonas worked with the families to explain the medications that were needed after surgery and followed up with the patients for their post-op care in the medical clinic.

Planning the Mission

There is a lot that goes into planning a medical mission such as this. You have to put together your surgical team, get connected to the facility, there are vaccinations and travel documents, figuring out what supplies will be needed; it’s quite a feat. Hospital Bon Samaritan is managed by the HBS Foundation, a non-profit foundation, which is located in Florida. The foundation helps to organize supplies that are needed in Haiti to keep the clinic operating. Dr. Unger worked with HBS and other physicians that have done similar missions to learn what supplies he might need to take with to care for his patients in Haiti. “We received many local donations that made this trip possible. ACMC supplied sutures and gloves; Cashwise Pharmacy located in the ACMC Willmar clinic donated pain relief medication and Rice Memorial Hospital also donated surgical supplies,” stated Unger. “We are very grateful for these donations and a trip like this wouldn’t even be possible without them.”

ACMC Health Learning Center was also a great resource as they helped to prepare the group for their surgical mission. The Health Learning Center is an international travel vaccination site.  They offer personalized and routine vaccinations, and also monitor travel recommendations.  They made sure everyone was immunized before they left for Haiti. There are many different diseases that affect different parts of the world so it is important to protect the health of the medical team before departure.

“The goal of our trip was to establish a sense of professionalism and commitment to third world countries and come back to the U. S. and use that experience; it gave us a lot of perspective.  The gratitude that was shown for the care that was received made me appreciate the opportunity to use my skills as a physician both in Haiti and back at home,” stated Unger.  “It helped me to better understand my commitment to serve patients. The group that I worked with was fabulous and we came away with a tremendous level of respect for one another. When I was done I was ready to come home, but I also can’t wait to go back!”