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Va. medical group struggles to find niche after Haiti quake

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Doctors from INOVA Fairfax traveled to Jacmel, Haiti, to help care for victims of the Jan. 12 earthquake after the city's hospital was left in shambles.

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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

JACMEL, HAITI -- The floor rippled, as though a wave were moving through the operating room. Haitian nurses began running, grabbing a post-op patient on a gurney along the way, as chunks of concrete fell around them.

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Half the building had been destroyed in the earthquake the week before, and it shivered in the aftershock. Suzie Miller, a 32-year-old doctor at Inova Fairfax Hospital's emergency department, bolted, then worried about the people left in the operating room: Larry Walker, who was handling surgical equipment, and Ted Alexander, who was cutting dead tissue out of a woman's arm.

"What are you going to do?" asked Alexander, a 69-year-old surgeon at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "You can't just quit. You've got somebody's life in your hands."

The aftershock was the final blow for the operating room, which had to be shut down, and another challenge for a week-long relief mission mounted by the Fairfax County-based Community Coalition for Haiti, the first of several teams. Miller, Alexander and 16 other volunteers had struggled for days to reach the town of Jacmel to care for victims of Haiti's catastrophic earthquake. They arrived with impressive credentials and ambitions.

"We were ready to save the world," said Alexander.

Instead, he and other surgeons and specialists found themselves doing the most basic medicine: cleaning wounds, tying slings and tearing up cardboard boxes to make rough splints.

Just as medical teams discovered during the 2004 tsunami and other disasters, relief efforts can be chaotic and frustratingly inefficient. Haiti has been no exception.

In Jacmel, the destination for three teams of medical workers from Northern Virginia, there were too many doctors and not enough supplies. Too many meetings, and not enough advanced medicine.

"Our hearts are in the right place," Miller said. "I just wonder if it's too little, too late."

Looking for the hospital

They were an eclectic group: an anesthesiologist who first came to Haiti 25 years ago, and a volunteer who had never been to a third-world country; a 28-year-old nurse who would never turn down a dare, and a pair of doctors in their 70s who wanted to publicly thank their wives for letting them go; a motherly nurse who called everyone "honey bunny," and a hospital executive with an unexpected ability to break dance.

It wasn't easy to get there. After a series of canceled flights, a morning stuck at the Haitian border in an overheated bus and a jolting ride in pickups along dirt mountain roads, they flew to Jacmel in planes so small that some had to leave food and water behind. The same flight, a few days later, crashed.


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