Haiti was already the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with most of its population living on less than $2 per day. Most citizens did not have access to running water or basic medical care. When the 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit in January of 2010, it left 316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, and over 1,000,000 homeless.
With the large number of fractures, amputations, and other earthquake-related injuries, the immediate need for trauma surgeons and doctors was evident. Most of the major buildings and hospitals were not functioning, but volunteers came from all over the world to treat patients anywhere they could in makeshift hospital tents.
Dr. Steven Katz, a neuro-ophthalmologist from OSU Havener Eye Institute, was at first hesitant to go, not really sure how he could be of assistance.
“I knew a number of people that had gone to Haiti to help out in the relief effort, one of whom was a former residency classmate of mine, Charlotte Agnone. She had been there twice and started to email me photographs of children and young adults with orbital tumors. She wanted me to come back with her to help with the surgery on these cases. They weren't acute injuries, but patients who had been overlooked or considered too difficult for someone to attempt in a less than adequate hospital.”
During that time, Dr. Agnone sent him a photo of Stephanie. Stephanie was an orphaned, 12-year-old Haitian girl with a large orbital tumor behind her left eye. She was very shy and did not interact with other kids. She was afraid to look at anyone because she was worried about what they might think about her. Through an interpreter, Stephanie communicated the difficulties she faced living in an orphanage and that she hoped to get married some day.
They arrived at Port-au-Prince and settled into the new Project MediShare compound. They were immediately struck with the physical difficulties of the extreme humidity, over 100 degree temperatures, and lack of running water. While the hospital was no longer being run out of a tent, it was always short on supplies, pharmaceuticals, and personnel. They lacked many of the instruments that would normally be used for such delicate orbital surgeries.
When they were not performing surgery or seeing eye patients, they were assisting in the general medicine clinic. The group treated many patients, but Stephanie was the one patient Dr. Katz went specifically to see. They were able to successfully remove her tumor and her vision and eye movements improved dramatically. Since returning home, Dr. Katz received photographs of her laughing, smiling, and playing with the other kids in the orphanage.
"We were very impressed with the beauty and strength of the Haitian people, as well as the incredible sacrifices of many of the volunteers," said Dr. Katz. "The small contribution that we made in four days was overshadowed by the volunteers who had been there for up to eight months."
Dr. Katz has promised Stephanie to return to Haiti. He hopes to take a few ophthalmology residents and fellows with him to perform the additional eye muscle surgery she needs as well as to assist in the care of other patients.
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