Patients overwhelm medical teams at Haiti clinics

Humanitarian efforts have begun across the world in response to the devastating earthquake that struck near Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince late Tuesday, Jan. 12. U.N. officials say an accurate count of those killed in the 7.0-magnitude quake might never be known.
By Mary Beth Sheridan, Debbi Wilgoren and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 17, 2010; 5:28 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Medical teams struggled to cope with an overwhelming crush of injured patients in this earthquake-ravaged city Sunday, while an international armada of would-be helpers vied in frustration for access to the disaster zone.

The French-based group Doctors Without Borders issued a public call that its planes "be allowed to land" at the Port-au-Prince international airport, "in order to treat thousands of wounded waiting for vital surgical operations." In North Carolina, troops with the 82nd Airborne who have been ready to deploy since Friday were told it would be at least 9 p.m. before they leave, because the tarmac is clogged with too many planes.

"We're ready to go," said Lieutenant Col. Peter Im. "It is a matter of having the capacity to receive it. There's very limited infrastructure, so getting equipment and personnel in is like you're going through a funnel."

Top State Department and military officials on the ground in Haiti said their ability to quickly get vital food and water in Haitians' hands has been hampered by their reliance on Port-au-Prince's tiny airport. Because of damaged roads and a devastated port, an airfield that typically serves three flights a day and lacks electricity and a functioning tower is having to handle up to 60 civilian flights a day.

The airport has been swarmed by incoming flights carrying emergency relief items from many nations, and some officials and organizations have been angered that the U.S. military took over prioritizing which flights it considered the most important to gain entry.

After the complaint from Doctors Without Borders, its hospital plane was given clearance to land around 3 p.m. Sunday. An Air Force official said the military had 67 civilian flights trying to arrive Saturday, and turned away only three.

"When you're dealing with life and death, everybody feels quite strongly . . . understandably," Denis McDonough, the chief of staff of President Obama's National Security Council, said of complaints about delays at the airport. "It's absolutely understandable that tempers would flare. But one thing that I'm sure none of us will apologize for is that we're all trying to relieve the pain of the Haitian people in this time of disaster."

At a field hospital run by the University of Miami in a United Nation's compound outside the Port-au-Prince airport, workers set up cots on an outdoor patio to accommodate waves of sick and wounded who could not fit into the already overflowing surgical and medical tents.

Since Wednesday night, the staff at the field hospital has grown from three doctors to 87 personnel. On Sunday, they were treating 280 patients crammed into a large tent on side-by-side cots. Next door was the surgery tent. On the patio, patients hooked up to intravenous lines filled the rows of new cots as soon as they were in place.

"The need is just overwhelming. We're just scratching the surface," said Dr. Eduardo de Marchena, a cardiologist taking a break from operating on patients. "We may have to turn people away, we're overspilling."

Seven field hospitals had been set up in Port-au-Prince by international organizations as of Saturday, and three more were supposed to open Sunday, said Nicholas Reader, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

While some Haitian hospitals were still functioning, they were facing a new challenge -- patients and their families who refused to leave once they were treated because they had no other shelter available.

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