Operation Spinal Cord Rescue

I came to Haiti with a general plan – to get supplies and to offer my surgical skills, knowing there would be crushed limbs requiring debridement, fixation, or amputation. Immediately after the quake, I contacted a close friend in Florida who hooked me up with Dr. Bernard Nau, an orthopedic surgeon from Haiti, who was stationed at CDTI/Sacred Heart Hospital in Port Au Prince. He was overwhelmed. He needed to get his operating rooms up and running.

The moment I arrived, I teamed up with Bernard and spent the day in surgery. After the procedures, folks would be transported to the “trauma ward”, not a clean, well-run facility, but a fluttering collection of tents, which housed an enormous patient load. Most of the injuries were severe. Still, in the midst of confusion, we needed to maintain a constant and accurate tally of each patient, their diagnosis, the procedure performed, and the postsurgical plan.

And that was Day One!

On Day Two, I was introduced to Dr. Colleen O’Connell, a Canadian physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) specialist from Handicap International. Her task was to go through the various hospitals and staging areas, tallying amputees, and making notes of which patients would require prosthetic limbs, as well as tallying spinal cord injuries. She informed me that our tent city had two such patients, lying on their backs for days on end, paralyzed.

Unbelievable! How was it possible that these patients weren’t evacuated immediately after the quake? Colleen told me the situation wasn’t unique, that there were multiple spinal cord injuries around Haiti, patients paralyzed, receiving minimal care, and every day closer to death. With bad roads and damaged infrastructure, it was impossible to get them out.

That’s when my mission changed. Dr. Nau was receiving supplies and other surgeons had joined his team to catch up on the backlog of limb injuries. With that going well, I was free to focus, with Dr. O’Connell’s help, on the evacuation of spinal cord injured patients.

My first task was to find a place to treat them, and I turned to my mentor, Dr. Paul Meyer, at Northwestern. During his tours in Vietnam, Dr. Meyer had witnessed soldiers dying in the field as a result of inadequate management of spinal fractures and associated cord injuries. He founded the first spine trauma and spinal cord injury program in the country at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Dr. Meyer and Northwestern were extremely responsive and immediately assist us, and through their efforts and those of the entire team, we somehow managed to cut through miles of red tape and got two of these critically injured patients to the States for world class care.

Peace Out!

Dr. Dan Ivankovich (@ReverendDoctorD)

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