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Helping Hands for Haiti

St. Mary's Innovis Health orthopedic surgeon Dr. Francis Cormier (at left, with patient) was in Haiti Feb. 21 through March 3 to help earthquake victims.1 / 4
He brought along (left to right) Britt Beeson, Stacey Larson, Karin Halverson, Alyson Jensen, Becky Bentley and Michelle Norby. They worked closely with Miquette Denie of TeacHaiti (lower right), who coordinates the medical teams at the hospital where they volunteered.2 / 4
OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST Stacey Larson (at right) helped organize games including wheelchair races and obstacle courses for the hospital patients in order to keep their spirits up and get them moving around. Some hadn't left their hospital beds since the earthquake in early January.3 / 4
EVEN HOSPITAL patients IN HAITI are treated in tents, as the buildings are still too unstable to occupy since the earthquake that left much of Port-au-Prince in ruins. The residents live on the streets or in tent cities.4 / 4

A little over three weeks ago, a surgical team from St. Mary's Innovis Health in Detroit Lakes embarked on a 10-day medical mission to Haiti.

The tiny island nation is still feeling the effects of a devastating earthquake that left its capital, Port-au-Prince, in ruins.

So when former St. Mary's nurse Miquette Denie, Port au Prince native and founder of TeacHaiti, made a plea for help, they answered.

Right from the moment their plane landed in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, the group's adventure began.

"Eleven of our bags didn't follow us (from the U.S.)," said lab technician Michelle Norby.

The bags did finally arrive -- "after we left (for the trip home)," said Becky Bentley, a surgical R.N. at SMIH. Because most of the bags were filled with medical supplies, however, they were still put to good use.

But while the group was there, "We had nothing -- Miquette supplied everything for us," Bentley noted.

Their adventure took another turn when they finally managed to make their way from Santo Domingo to the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

"We didn't realize the border closed after 7 p.m.," Bentley said.

When the group finally arrived at the border, it was nearly midnight. So they made plans to spend the night there.

"It was a scary place to be at midnight," admitted Stacey Larson, occupational therapist.

"We were stuck in no man's land," Norby added.

"We didn't venture too far from the vehicles," Bentley said.

But a random act of kindness gave the group a reprieve.

"There was a Haitiani girl there, about 14 years old, and she was freezing," Bentley said. "So we offered her a blanket."

As it happened, the girl's father had a cell phone -- and some government connections.

Not only did he allow them to use his cell phone to call Denie and let her know what had happened, he also managed to get them across the border that night.

"It cost us an inhaler and $30 -- but he got us across," said Bentley.

In fact, the man guided them to the Quisqueya school, where they would be staying for the next 10 days. His guidance was more than welcome.

"We had no idea where we were going, and it was night," said Norby, noting that Port au Prince was very dark at night.

"It took us eight hours to get there," she added.

Once they arrived, the group's expertise was put to good use.

Dr. Francis Cormier, an orthopedic surgeon, said he "saw a lot of pressure sores, open wounds, post-amputees."

He also saw a lot of patients with external fixators holding broken bones in place -- bones that had been crushed by rubble.

Cormier's first few days were spent treating patients with general ailments, but after that his work involved mainly fractures and dislocations, he added.

People in line waiting for treatment would hold their medical records in their hands -- there was no place to store them, Bentley said.

Cormier speaks French, so he was able to communicate with the Haitians, many of whom only spoke Creole (or Kreyole, as they refer to it in Haiti).

Because the buildings in Port au Prince are still largely unstable, people live in the streets, in tent cities -- many of their shelters consisting only of a sheet and sticks to hold them up.

"We saw babies being born in the tent cities," Norby said.

Even patients in the hospital slept in tents, as the hospital buildings themselves were also unstable.

"These are people who don't have anything left," said Karin Halverson. "Even the people who still have houses won't sleep in them (out of fear of another earthquake)."

"There's so much devastation," Larson added. Because there were so many post-amputees feeling depressed -- knowing their chances of finding work were greatly diminished -- she helped boost their spirits by organizing wheelchair races and obstacle courses.

"She touched a lot of people that way," said Bentley.

"We couldn't get to everyone one at a time, so we tried to find ways to reach many people at once," Larson said. Many of them had been lying in bed since the earthquake more than a month earlier, unable or unwilling to get up.

And once they were discharged from the hospital, many of them had no one to go home to.

"Once they left the gates (of the hospital), we don't know where they went," Cormier added.

One thing the St. Mary's team was impressed with was how many volunteers there were, from nearly every country.

"You would see tents from all the different countries around the world, set up next to the hospital," Norby said.

There were even some tents that had been pitched on the roof of the hospital, Halverson added.

Larson said she was impressed by "the strength of the Haitian people, and the cooperation of everybody from all over the world."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454