Mercy mission to Haiti: A North Bend doctor delivers care to earthquake victims
February 3, 2010
NEW — 12:15 a.m. Feb. 3, 2010
Ashok Shroff was up early Jan. 20 doing breathing exercises in the pre-dawn stillness, before the day’s nonstop rush began. The floor in his second-floor room began to go up and down like a wave.
Everyone in the communal sleeping room was awake a moment later, rushing downstairs to get out of the building. Thirty-one Haitians, including 11 children, and several American medical professionals were sleeping in the two-story, concrete house.
As Shroff, a doctor from North Bend, ran to get outside, he thought of his wife.
“I remember thinking Mary will never find or forgive me here if one of these concrete blocks falls on me,” he wrote in an e-mail to friends.
Everyone made it outside and the building remained standing after being rocked by one of dozens of aftershocks following the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed much of the city, leaving at least several hundred thousand homeless and killing as many as 200,000 people, according to estimates from international aid organizations.
In the disaster’s wake, help came from private organizations and governments around the world. Medical professionals and supplies were in high demand.
Among the first groups to send trained people into the disaster zone was Medical Teams International, which has offices in Oregon and Washington. The group has been sending all-volunteer medical teams to disaster areas around the world for 30 years. It sets up the logistics to get people like Shroff to disaster areas, and arranges for support and supplies once they are there.
The first team left three days after the earthquake. Part of the second team, Shroff left from SeaTac International Airport Jan. 17, with a backpack and suitcases full of food, water and medical supplies.
Shroff, an anesthesiologist, joined a team led by Dr. Lew Zirkle, an orthopedic surgeon. The team used a device which let them set leg fractures without an x-ray machine.
“It’s ideal for Third World countries without power or access to X-rays, which we didn’t have,” Shroff said after his return.
Shroff was used to working in less than ideal conditions. He has joined Doctors Without Borders on several missions, including one to Haiti after it was hit by three hurricanes in 2008, and he served as a doctor with the Indian Army’s paratroopers.
Medical professionals like Shroff are “the McGuyver types,” said Linda Ranz, Medical Team International’s executive director. “They know how to work in some of the worst situations.”
His resourcefulness and ability to work despite the conditions was put to good use at Kings Hospital, about a mile north of Port-au-Prince’s airport.
The humidity was so high that Shroff could only keep intravenous needles in patients’ arms with duct tape.
He checked patients’ pulses with his finger and took their blood pressure manually. There was none of the advanced monitoring equipment he is used to at St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way and Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, the hospitals where he works.
The surgeons worked using regular head lamps and with no suction equipment to clear fluids out of incisions.
Even oxygen was in short supply, and he had to largely rely on a machine that concentrated oxygen from the air.
One young boy wavered in a comatose state induced by low blood-oxygen levels after surgery. Shroff had carefully rationed the few oxygen canisters he had, which had left him with a small amount to use on the boy.
He was grateful he’d been so careful with his use of it in previous procedures, but that one minor triumph was dwarfed by the larger problem.
“My worry is that I have enough oxygen for the next one,” Shroff wrote in an e-mail to friends and family.
With no support staff, the doctors and nurses had to prepare patients for surgery, take them through post-operative recovery and wash the operating room floors and their instruments.
All the additional work limited them to only two or three major operations — which took two or three hours each — and several smaller procedures per day.
The work was physically and emotionally taxing.
“Some of the patients we operated on had no family left,” Shroff said.
All of the patients had been waiting since the earthquake Jan. 12 for medical treatment.
One patient, a 27-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant, walked on a broken thighbone to check on her two children. A wall had fallen on her leg during the earthquake. Shroff’s team operated on her leg Jan. 24, nearly two weeks after her leg was broken.
Shroff was amazed by Haitians’ ability to endure despite the devastation.
Food and water were in short supply. Fuel was nonexistent. The electrical grid was down.
“I don’t know how I would handle it,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I still hear laughter at my feeble attempts at speaking Creole and I hear ‘Mesi’ — ‘thank you’ — after their operations are done and I wheel them back to their hospital beds.”
Haitians were quick to show their gratitude to the relief workers.
Shroff had another 27-year-old female patient who was five months pregnant. He asked her if she had a name for her baby. She said she would name her baby Ashok, after him, if it’s a boy.
Before he left, Shroff managed to acquire some additional equipment for Kings Hospital. He and another doctor with Medical Teams International met up with a U.S. Air Force medical unit that was leaving Haiti. The soldiers agreed to ‘lose’ some of their field operating equipment.
“Today … our operating rooms are a lot richer and capable of doing more than they were yesterday,” Shroff wrote in an e-mail.
After eight days in Haiti, more doctors arrived to take Shroff’s place. He caught a ride to Florida aboard an empty U.S. Air Force cargo plane that had delivered supplies to Port-au-Prince.
Back in North Bend, Shroff didn’t hesitate when asked why he went to Haiti.
“It’s just basic humanity to go help,” and he has skills that were needed, he said.
Recovery for Haiti is expected to take years, possibly decades, according to international aid organizations.
Medical Teams International plans to be in Haiti for a long time to come.
“We don’t want to just go in, put on the Band-Aid and leave,” Ranz said.
The group’s goal is to stay in a country until its health care system becomes self-sustaining. For Haiti, that will take a long time and significant commitment from nongovernment organizations and governments, she said.
“We expect we’ll be there for years,” Ranz said.
The organization takes an evidence-based approach to treating patients and determining what kind of care is needed. That approach prompted it to send physical therapists to Moldova. Another need that is often overlooked, Ranz said, is psychological treatment following major disasters.
“The people of Haiti will require help for a long time, and the people of the U.S. are so generous,” Shroff said. “Let’s not forget that this disaster happened.”
Dan Catchpole: 392-6434, ext. 246, or firstname.lastname@example.org.