A local medical team’s recent trip to Haiti was both lifesaving and lifechanging.
Dr. Laura Dabinett, a local gynecologist; registered nurse Stacy Chapman, who works in labor and delivery at Winchester Medical Center; Shenandoah University nursing student Kathryn Stewart; and Drs. Charlie Hagan and Elford Stephens, both Winchester anesthesiologists, were part of a 21-strong group of medical providers who were in Jacmel, Haiti, May 16-23.
They were volunteering with Community Coalition for Haiti (CCH), a charity based in Vienna that brings medical care, education, economic development, agricultural aid and more to the Caribbean country, according to its website, cchaiti.org.
The group also included Dabinett’s husband, Dr. Russell McKelway, another Winchester doctor, Kristin DeHaven, an obstetrician gynecologist, and several more SU students.
In an interview Tuesday, Dabinett said physicians from Inova health system brought the idea of the aid mission back to churches in 1989.
“It has grown into an organization that is, I think, doing really great things in southern Haiti,” she said.
Dabinett made her first trip to the country last October with two CCH medical directors.
During the May visit, the primary purpose was to provide gynecological care — which is almost nonexistent in Haiti unless the woman is wealthy.
Jacmel is a city of about 40,000 people, and CCH’s clinic has a catchment area of about 170,000 people, Dabinett said. CCH’s clinic has one operating room and two doctors to serve all of those people, she said.
“CCH was called into Jacmel to provide support after the [devastating 2010] earthquake because the hospital had been destroyed and there was no medical care available,” Dabinett said.
The clinic began seeing patients in 2012, and saw 20,000 in 2014, she said.
In their week there, the local team did 17 surgeries. “We had a lot of patients show up hoping for care that we could not help,” Dabinett said.
For instance, people with metastasized cancers couldn’t be helped. “Poor patients in Haiti don’t get radiation treatment, or chemotherapy for that matter,”Dabinett said.
The team recalled a 64-year-old man being at peace when told his advanced cancer couldn’t be treated. He said his goal had been to live to age 60. There also aren’t blood banks at the ready, so patients suffering a hemorrhage die.
Hagan talked about a child who was in the clinic having unexplained seizures and went into respiratory arrest. “She was dying right in front of me,” he said. In the U.S., if someone is having a seizure, they can be taken to the hospital — where they’ll be given medication to stop it, Hagan said.
The Haitian child was taken to the operating room. “[We] gave her general anesthesia, which is the ultimate treatment for seizures,” Hagan said.
The doctors have a picture of the child two hours later sitting up and holding a new doll she’d been given. She has a big smile on her face.
“She’s lucky to be alive,” Hagan said.
“During this resuscitation, we were calling pharmacies, looking for local drugs to break seizures,”
Stephens said. Hagan was especially touched to meet Larry Walker, co-chairman of CCH’s medical committee. “He’s in many ways the spirit and heart and soul of CCH,” Hagan said. “He was actually in Jacmel within six hours after the earthquake. Larry’s moral and philosophical outlook on life, it was an epiphany for me.”
It was a great learning experience for Stewart.
“It’s an environment of high guidance, low correction,” she said. “You’re definitely applying the skills you learn. All of the surgeons and nurses, the nurse practitioner, even other students, everybody was so willing to even pause during the surgery [to answer questions].”
Dabinett said it was a “fantastic” locale for teaching students. “In operating in Haiti, you see pathology that you would never see here because it never gets to the point of being that large,” she said.
Dabinett pointed to a woman with so many fibroids her uterus weighed 10 pounds. “She looked like she was ready to give birth,” she said.
Hagan said, “The joy on her husband’s face three days later when she was returning to a normal life was unmistakable and an impression that will stay with me for ever.”
Chapman said the team agreed there were two things they hoped to get out of the trip: good patient outcomes and a good experience for the students.
The team also had to do without some of the instruments they’re accustomed to.
“The table I used to do hysterectomies on was half the size of the table I use for minor procedures [here], and the number of instruments is 10 percent of what I have available,” Dabinett said.
“You have to be flexible. You’ve got to be willing to work with what you’ve got. I became a better surgeon, a better care provider, a better teacher.”
The medics learned to be “creative”, Chapman said.
“The clinic was really well stocked with equipment, but it wasn’t necessarily the equipment that you’re used to grabbing, so you kind of did a few MacGyver things,” she said.
Stephens said he thought such volunteer work would have to come later in life since he has children.
“Being able to do medical mission work was the primary reason I went into medicine,” he said. “This was my first opportunity that presented to do it.”
CCH is also providing medical training to people in Haiti, and during the time Dabinett and her teammates were in the country, she and the other doctors were doing laparoscopic surgeries, which is very new in the country. She said the hope is they can train Haitian doctors to do laparoscopy.
Seeing children who would die without treatment, compels someone to act, Hagan said.
“Haiti is a land of stark contrasts,” he said. “It’s beautiful beaches, and a nonexisting social and medical network. It’s warm and compassionate people, and an environmental disaster with government failure in almost every department.”
Dabinett added, “You have to believe the lives you touched, even though they’re not many, it makes a little bit of difference in the lives of people.”
— Contact Sally Voth at svoth@winchester star.com