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The heroes of Haiti


This post is dedicated to the men and women of the U.S. Naval Medical Corps serving aboard the U.S.N.S. Comfort.

This post is dedicated to the men and women of the U.S. Naval Medical Corps serving aboard the U.S.N.S. Comfort.

One of my former residents came to the hospital last week to visit. His name is Adam Cooper, and he graduated from residency three years ago, tried a couple of different jobs, but made the decision to enter the U.S. Navy as a medical corps officer about a year ago, so now I have to call him Lieutenant Adam Cooper. Recently, Adam was mobilized as part of the largest relief effort ever conducted in the history of the U.S. Navy: the rescue effort in Haiti. Adam wanted to come back to the hospital and “hug every one of the attendings for the four years of torture” that we put him through during residency.

Adam shared some of the 3,000 pictures that he took of his time on the U.S.N.S. Comfort and on the devastated island itself. Horrific images of severe trauma, necrotizing infections, and gangrene against a backdrop of collapsed buildings in a broken country. The pictures also told a story of heroism, valor, and tenacity by the members of the U.S. military - the true heroes of Haiti.

Adam kept his promise and hugged all of us amid backslaps and high-fives, and then we all sat down as he gave the details of his mission to rescue and aid the victims of the earthquake and provide 21st century medical care to a country with a 17th century infrastructure in an environment of biblical destruction.

Adam was the only emergency medicine trained physician as part of a team consisting of family practitioners, surgeons, pediatricians, nurses, and naval corpstaff. The team treated over a thousand patients in 12 days, moving critically ill and injured people from the rubble onto helicopters and boats to the operating rooms on board the Comfort, recovering them and getting them back to some level of definitive care. The team worked under the most extreme conditions - an aftershock knocked out the CT scanner on the ship for four days and several of the portable X-ray machines burned out. Suddenly, Adam and the team discovered what bedside diagnosis was like in the 1950s.

The diseases and trauma that the team saw would give any physician nightmares. Among the fractures and amputations and solid-organ injuries and dehydration and sepsis and abandoned children, the team treated six cases of tetanus, cerebral malaria, and delivered a half-dozen babies, the births of which were complicated by seizures, eclampsia, and open pelvic fractures in one of the mothers. According to a study by UCSF, in 2007, approximately 15 percent of the population of Haiti was living with HIV/AIDS.

The team coordinated with members of the international relief effort including military representatives from Israel, France, England, and other countries as well as NGOs like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

Adam said that every member of the team work 20 hours each day for two weeks straight. He compared is to “the worst shift you’ve ever worked in the ER - all day every day” and he thanked us all again for the time and teaching.

I’ve never been so proud of one of my former residents. In a small way, I almost feel like I spent some time in Haiti with Adam - just like the old days.

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