U.S. suspends Haitian medical flights as Florida hospitals run short of capacity

Petit Fauna, 9, screams as she gets an injection of pain medication from a U.S. nurse. Her earthquake injuries have left her legs paralyzed.
Petit Fauna, 9, screams as she gets an injection of pain medication from a U.S. nurse. Her earthquake injuries have left her legs paralyzed. (Photos By Carol Guzy/the Washington Post)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan, Peter Slevin and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

The U.S. military has temporarily halted medical evacuation flights for Haitians critically injured in this month's earthquake, after Florida officials told the Obama administration that the state's hospitals are becoming too crowded, officials said Saturday.

The decision has alarmed doctors trying to treat the crush of wounded in the devastated country. Barth Green, who oversees a field hospital in the Haitian capital run by the charity Project Medishare, said some patients could perish if they did not reach foreign medical facilities soon.

"We have to resume these flights. Letting them die, that's not America," said Green, who labored Saturday to find private donors to underwrite the cost of alternative flights.

A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said officials are scrambling to find available medical facilities in other states so the military flights can resume.

The military suspended the evacuation flights after Gov. Charlie Crist (R) told the federal government in a letter Wednesday that Florida's medical facilities were "quickly reaching saturation, especially in the area of high-level trauma care." Florida hospitals had treated 526 earthquake victims as of Saturday, with 174 inpatients still in the facilities, state officials said.

Crist's letter, addressed to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, did not rule out receiving additional patients. But it was cited by Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. Transportation Command, as a reason for the suspension of flights.

"We do medical evacuation, and we do it well, but we can't fly anyone without an accepting hospital on the other end," Aandahl said. The cutoff of flights first reported by the New York Times.

In his letter, Crist complained of a "lack of coordination by federal authorities" as Florida grappled with receiving hundreds of injured Haitians and more than 15,000 U.S. and other citizens evacuated after the 7.0-magnitude Jan. 12 quake. The tipping point came, the governor said, when he learned plans were underway to send to Florida hospitals 30 to 50 critically injured patients per day for an indefinite period.

"Florida does not have the capacity to support such an operation," he wrote, noting that the state was in the midst of its tourist and "snowbird" migration season.

Crist urged Sebelius to activate the National Disaster Medical System, which provides funding and personnel for catastrophes and moves patients to hospitals in states unaffected by a crisis. He asked for an answer within 48 hours. No response had been received by Saturday, according to Crist's spokesman, Sterling Ivey.

Vietor said no policy decision had been made to end the medical evacuation flights, adding that the problem was merely the lack of bed space in hospitals.

Asked why patients could not simply be flown to states other than Florida, he said officials are trying to identify bases where large military planes could land and offload patients who could then be taken swiftly to hospitals with available beds.

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