South Africa’s ‘dream team’ in Haiti

2010-02-04 00:00

CITY orthopaedic surgeon­ Dr Livan Turino witnessed his first operation in Haiti being carried out on a plastic garden table under a tree. This was after travelling for more than 60 kilometres on a road that was collapsing on both sides and which was criss-crossed by fissures left by the earthquake that devastated the island.

It was a journey that took almost three hours. Turino, who works for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, was part of the medical team that was sent by the Gift of the Givers to Haiti. His group was one of the first that got out of the capital city Port-au-Prince and travelled to a rural area that no rescue team had reached. The rubble, part of the ravaged Haitian landscape, had its use as he and his fellow doctors literally walked around weighing pieces by hand to assess what they could use as weights for the makeshift tractions set up for their patients.

Turino, who arrived back in Pietermaritzburg last weekend, said that it is going to take a long time to process the experience. He is certain that he will never forget the stench of death that hung like a pall over the country.

“That smell will stay with me, as well as the degrading sight of people running after United Nations food trucks from which staff just threw food at them. I grew up in Cuba and it reminded me of the chickens that scrambled from all sides when we threw out handfuls of grain.”

Turino is angry that an organisation such as the United Nations could not demonstrate more care and organise a system of food distribution.

“It was humiliating and degrading for people who had already suffered so much. This scramble for food was the cause of a lot of the violence that has been reported,’’ he said.

In the midst of the chaos and destruction, he was part of a team that demonstrated resilience and showed an ability not to be defeated by adversity. They were able to make a plan and find ways to save lives. The South Africans earned the title of the “dream team” from their American counterparts.

A long-standing member of the Red Cross, Turino missed out on helping in other rescue missions and is grateful that he was able to go to Haiti where his being able to speak Spanish helped. He commended the incredible level of organisation by Dr Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers team back home.

“There was one time when I was planning for the next day late into the night. At 2 am Imtiaz sent me an SMS telling me to go to sleep as tomorrow was another day.”

The South Africans established a tent clinic behind the Seventh-Day Adventist­ Hospital in the run-down waterfront district of Carrefour. According to journalist Stephan Hofstatter who accompanied the team, this clinic ran like clockwork, earning accolades from fellow medics. Relief worker Laura Asher, remarking on the long queues outside the clinic, told Hofstatter that people heard about the South African dream team and didn’t stopped coming.

According to Turino their success was due to the highly qualified surgeons who were part of their 12-member team. He paid tribute to fellow orthopaedic­ specialist Dr Jonny de Beer and the other specialists.

“Most of us did not know each other before we left South Africa but we were able to work together and put a system in place. We acted as each other’s scrub nurses and when we were not carrying out operations one or other of the team was outside stoking the fire and sterilising the instruments in two big pots of boiling water. When I completed an operation my job was not finished as I had to get down to cleaning and scrubbing our makeshift theatre in preparation for the next operation,” he said.

Turino said what helped was that from the outset they were all in agreement that they were going to do their best to maintain their ethical standards towards their patients. This meant putting systems in place. They had patients’ lists written on a white board, specifying operating schedules and procedures to be carried out as well as a duty roster as to who was doing what.

“I would be the surgeon in one operation and the nurse in another. Tents were divided into pre-op and post-op so that we could be careful about the treatment we offered,” he said.

Above all, without proper equipment a lot of what they did was based on guesswork so they conferred and listened to each other. They compromised and made plans.

“As a surgeon in a normal operation I work with up to 30 forceps. There we made do with two and three, and when we did not have the right-sized screw we sawed down what we had to make it fit,” said Torino.

He is proudest of an innovation carried out by his fellow surgeons when they decided to do community work. The team knew that they would be leaving soon and that families would need guidance on how to care for the wounded as well as counselling in just coping with their devastation and grief. The doctors went to the communities and spoke to families. Turino believes that they reached thousands of people in a few days and ignited a spark of reaching out to communities by giving them hope and the tools with which to take their lives forward.

“I know this is being followed up and I am proud that this was a brilliant­ South African initiative that we left behind,” he says.

For the orthopaedic surgeon, the past 10 days spent in Haiti has been a test in endurance and coping with deep emotional strain.

“We all reached our breaking point at one stage or the other. There was this American doctor who spent the whole night trying to save a patient’s arm; however, when the bleeding would not stop a decision was taken by another surgeon to amputate the arm. This doctor was devastated, he wanted to pack his bags and leave. I reached my breaking point on day six. I walked past this building. There was dried blood everywhere and sticking out of the rubble was a little teddy bear.”

Turino’s group was followed by a second 10-member medical team and a group of 20 medical personnel are on standby in the days to come.

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