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

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 ona recent night in Port-Au-Prince, as monitors tracked the heartbeats ofhis tiny charges, some barely weighing in at 1.36 kilos. Among them wasthe fragile lone surviving triplet of his litter, and a baby whose twinwas stillborn.

The trauma of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake can induce prematurelabor, so Levi was among the Israeli medical team of 40 doctors, 40nurses and paramedics that flew to Haiti days after the earthquakestruck. Rushing to the disaster, the 220-member team of medicalpersonnel, rescuers and soldiers arrived to find the hospitals in theHaitian capital were on the brink of collapse. Physically unstable andtherefore dangerous, they became de facto morgues as doctors ran out ofsupplies 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.

"Peoplehad the impression that many patients are waiting for them," said Col.Yitzhak Kreiss, field hospital commander, explaining the speed andurgency 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 medicalteam, 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 snappedinto action. Seven days after the earthquake, the field hospital hadseen more than 300 patients, treating them for broken bones, infectedwounds and other injuries. Because of the collapse of Haiti'sinfrastructure, 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 anduseful to us in our operation," Japanese Ambassador to Haiti NobutakaShinomiya told The Jerusalem Post. He was visiting the hospitalon Wednesday afternoon with two Japanese members of parliament,Nobuhiko Suto and Yukihisa Fujita.

The ambassador said that they had visited several fieldhospitals run by other countries, but they were impressed with thesophistication 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 aprominent Jewish family, the 90-bed hospital houses surgical,orthopedic and X-ray and imaging departments. According to Kreiss, it'sdesign was based on the nature of the disaster, meaning doctors cameprepared 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 situationin Haiti was the "most catastrophic disaster that we've ever seen orheard of from our experience."

As soldiers guarded the main gate one morning this week, a lineof 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. Inthe pediatrics ward, a young girl with both legs in splints stroked herdoll'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 photographerssnapped. The boy bit down hard on his lip. Unable to watch thestruggle, an operating room nurse scooped the child up and placed himon a cot.

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

With a mission to rescue and treat survivors, the IDF MedicalCorps and Home Front Command, known for its professionalism, mobilizedhours after the earthquake. A Home Front Command advance team quicklyleft with a mission to grease the wheels on the ground and organizesupplies so that when the team landed, it could set up campimmediately.

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

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

Carrying 80 tons of equipment - medical supplies and rescuetools - the IDF team was relatively small and nimble. Kreiss said itwas 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 usedto stabilize fractured hips and calves. A surgical nurse, along with aHome Front Command officer, improvised and fashioned a new pin. Theysent it to a local producer who copied it for them.

"This is the spirit of the IDF, to do things quickly andefficiently," Kreiss said. "This is the Medical Corps spirit of beingthere to help anyone who needs it."

DESPITE ITS relative sophistication, the hospitalfaces the constraints of operating in the field. Surgeons use a handdrill during some operations and sterility is limited, despitescrubbing and vigorous cleaning of tools. Doctors described the nuancedposition of trying to treat patients and effectively conserve theirresources to help as many as possible.

"We try to locate the patient with a life ordeath problem on the one hand, right? But on the other hand, we canhelp others," said Dr. Ofer Merin, chief of surgery, who is responsiblefor triage.

Emotionally, the work is taxing. "You try to suppress it," saidDr. Amit Gill, an orthopedic surgeon, who said in the evenings he goesto the nursery to remind him of his young son back home. "There's nomedical 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 leftfoot.

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