Reporter's Notebook: Saved at a terrible cost

Baby Brahms Mathieu Jean-Louis was trapped for five days under the rubble of his home.

January 22, 2010 06:29
3 minute read.
Brahms Mathieu Jean-Louis and his mother.

haiti survivors 311. (photo credit: E.B. Solomont)

Brahms Mathieu Jean-Louis is a serious name for an eight-month-old baby. Loaded with gravitas, the name seems too large for its owner, whose huge brown eyes hang on to everything and everyone that passes by.

Brahms is the toast of the nursery here at the IDF field hospital in Haiti, and why shouldn't he be? His sweet demeanor belies the horror of last week, when he was trapped for five days under the rubble of his home. Rescued by a neighbor, he was brought to the hospital, where doctors were forced to amputate his left leg below the knee after a gash turned septic.

For nearly a week, Brahms's mother had feared he was dead, and she collapsed in tears when she found him a day after he was rescued.

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"Thanks God for them," Roudlie Daniel Jean-Louis told me in broken English, referring to the Israeli doctors, as she eyed her son's missing foot. Overjoyed he was alive, she was also deeply upset that doctors were forced to amputate. Stroking her son's cheek, she told me, "I didn't hope to see him [again], because he was in the house [when the earthquake hit]."

Doctors at the hospital lamented the probably bleak futures in this impoverished Caribbean nation for patients, like Brahms, with amputated limbs.

"For a boy with no legs, no life," an operating room nurse said succinctly.

In the Western world, I would not necessarily agree. But the comment conjured images of adults too disabled and too poor to get by in the developing world.

Amputations are common surgeries at this field hospital, after the earthquake crushed limbs and infections took hold in the filthy streets of Port-au-Prince.

On Wednesday, a young Christian couple who run an orphanage here arrived with one of their young charges, whose foot was swollen and bleeding. While doctors examined the boy, the couple agreed to take home three other patients who were being discharged that day.

"We don't even know where we're going to take them," said Jared Coblentz, standing with his wife, Jalayne. "The last thing we want is to turn away people who need help."

As I prepare to leave Haiti, I consider this little-discussed aspect of treating Haitian patients in the field. No one disagrees on the value of the lifesaving care; but how will patients fare when they're back on the streets? Doctors discharge patients with antibiotics, if necessary. But most leave the hospital within hours of minor surgeries and procedures, or with their wounds still fresh. Even the source of their next sip of water is uncertain.

In the neonatal intensive care unit at the IDF field hospital, a doctor this week grappled with a course of treatment for one boy born nearly two months early. Under different circumstances, the baby would be in an NICU incubator for at least a month. In this case, the doctor had two weeks to care for the patient and nurture him to better health before he would face the world.

Among the doctors and nurses, there is much talk of wanting to adopt the orphans who have turned up at the hospital. With his serious demeanor and intelligent-looking eyes, Brahms is an easy favorite among the soldiers. On Wednesday night officers crowded around him, pinching his cheeks, reading him a storybook in Hebrew and doting on the small boy.

"I'm first in line for him," one said, elbowing out another.

His mother Roudlie was not there, and her absence somehow highlighted the hard road ahead. In about a week, the IDF personnel here will leave; whether a second group will replace them is uncertain. International aid groups will remain on the ground for months to come.

But for patients like Brahms, their fate, like the future of their country, hangs in the balance.

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