In Haiti: 'This is the spirit of the IDF'

By E.B. SOLOMONT
January 25, 2010 12:32

By the time the fourth baby was born at the IDF's field hospital in Haiti, Dr. Yuval Levi's newborn nursery was overflowing. Three premature babies occupied incubators, and the neonatologist had little choice but to cover his own cot with blankets and turn it over to his newest patient.


"I guess I lost my bed," Levi said with a grin on a recent night in Port-Au-Prince, as monitors tracked the heartbeats of his tiny charges, some barely weighing in at 1.36 kilos. Among them was the fragile lone surviving triplet of his litter, and a baby whose twin was stillborn.



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The trauma of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake can induce premature labor, so Levi was among the Israeli medical team of 40 doctors, 40 nurses and paramedics that flew to Haiti days after the earthquake struck. Rushing to the disaster, the 220-member team of medical personnel, rescuers and soldiers arrived to find the hospitals in the Haitian capital were on the brink of collapse. Physically unstable and therefore dangerous, they became de facto morgues as doctors ran out of supplies and bodies piled up on the streets outside.



Working through the night, the IDF opened a field hospital 16 hours after two jets - a 747 and a 777 - landed in Haiti.



"People had the impression that many patients are waiting for them," said Col. Yitzhak Kreiss, field hospital commander, explaining the speed and urgency of the mission.



Perched on an army green cot on the side of the hospital, Kreiss said that within minutes of the IDF's decision to send a medical team, he received 200 calls on his phone. "I can say that 300 more [people] wanted to come," he said.



MUCH HAS been made of how quickly the IDF snapped into action. Seven days after the earthquake, the field hospital had seen more than 300 patients, treating them for broken bones, infected wounds and other injuries. Because of the collapse of Haiti's infrastructure, the medical team found themselves in a crucial role.



"Here, we are the top level medical center in the area," Kreiss said.



On a recent afternoon, a delegation of Japanese officials visited the hospital.



"We are thinking about sending the Japanese medical corps here. This experience of the Israeli people is very, very interesting and useful to us in our operation," Japanese Ambassador to Haiti Nobutaka Shinomiya told The Jerusalem Post. He was visiting the hospital on Wednesday afternoon with two Japanese members of parliament, Nobuhiko Suto and Yukihisa Fujita.



The ambassador said that they had visited several field hospitals run by other countries, but they were impressed with the sophistication of the Israeli center.



"It is operating in a very systematical precise way," he said. "It's very impressive."



Set up on the grounds of an industrial plant owned by a prominent Jewish family, the 90-bed hospital houses surgical, orthopedic and X-ray and imaging departments. According to Kreiss, it's design was based on the nature of the disaster, meaning doctors came prepared to deal with crushed bones and gashes.



"The basic principle is the same," Kreiss said, "but this field hospital is much more orthopedic and surgery-oriented."



Kreiss, who has overseen similar operations, said the situation in Haiti was the "most catastrophic disaster that we've ever seen or heard of from our experience."



As soldiers guarded the main gate one morning this week, a line of Haitians seeking care snaked down the dusty street. One by one, patients were admitted and sent to triage. Inside the treatment tents, patients wear labels with bar codes and hanging IV bags drip slowly. In the pediatrics ward, a young girl with both legs in splints stroked her doll's hair and smiled.



On a scorching afternoon, a nurse cajoled a young boy to take his first steps after having his right food amputated.



"You're a famous man, come," urged Adi Madjar, as photographers snapped. The boy bit down hard on his lip. Unable to watch the struggle, an operating room nurse scooped the child up and placed him on a cot.



"My heart," Reuven Gelfand, the nurse, said, shaking his head at the thought of a boy living a full life without his foot. "It is catastrophic. It's not possible for a boy. With no legs, no life."



With a mission to rescue and treat survivors, the IDF Medical Corps and Home Front Command, known for its professionalism, mobilized hours after the earthquake. A Home Front Command advance team quickly left with a mission to grease the wheels on the ground and organize supplies so that when the team landed, it could set up camp immediately.



"Our mission would fail if the airplane landed in Haiti and we didn't have the truck, bus, jeep, and place," said Home Front Command officer Lt.-Col. Sami Yehezkel, who directed the advance team. There was little time to fool around, he said. "We had about 20 hours until the first airplane was going to Haiti and nothing was finalized."



Yehezkel credited the team's success on having contacts in every part of the world, and a vast Jewish network to rely on. In this case, Israel's ambassador to the region convinced a wealthy Jewish family - the Bigios - to donate space and equipment like water tanks and vehicles. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he also credited the aggressiveness of the army to accomplish its mission: "The Israeli chutzpah to go to every place, to knock on the door and say, 'Hello, we are here and this is what we need,'" Yehezkel said.



Carrying 80 tons of equipment - medical supplies and rescue tools - the IDF team was relatively small and nimble. Kreiss said it was crucial to be versatile.



"When you take the versatile approach you can adjust it to the reality of the disaster," he said.



Within days, doctors had run out of external fixation nails used to stabilize fractured hips and calves. A surgical nurse, along with a Home Front Command officer, improvised and fashioned a new pin. They sent it to a local producer who copied it for them.



"This is the spirit of the IDF, to do things quickly and efficiently," Kreiss said. "This is the Medical Corps spirit of being there to help anyone who needs it."



DESPITE ITS relative sophistication, the hospital faces the constraints of operating in the field. Surgeons use a hand drill during some operations and sterility is limited, despite scrubbing and vigorous cleaning of tools. Doctors described the nuanced position of trying to treat patients and effectively conserve their resources to help as many as possible.





"We try to locate the patient with a life or death problem on the one hand, right? But on the other hand, we can help others," said Dr. Ofer Merin, chief of surgery, who is responsible for triage.



Emotionally, the work is taxing. "You try to suppress it," said Dr. Amit Gill, an orthopedic surgeon, who said in the evenings he goes to the nursery to remind him of his young son back home. "There's no medical school or training that can prepare you for this."



But there are small miracles, such as an eight-month-old baby rescued after being trapped under the rubble for five days.



"Thank God for them," his mother, Roudlie Daniel Jean-Louis, said of the Israeli doctors, who were forced to amputate her son's left foot.



Jean-Louis described how her neighbor found her son and brought him to the hospital. "I didn't hope to see him again because he was in the house when the earthquake hit," she said.


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