“Reflections” – February 18-25, 2010 Haiti trip
as told by Dr. John Kelley
I want to thank you for your prayers and support (donations of
supplies, equipment, and cash) for my recent surgical mission to
Haiti. For the past several years when talking about my surgical
missions to Honduras, I usually begin with “Honduras is the
second poorest country in the western hemisphere second only
to Haiti.” However, prior to this trip, I was unable to imagine
how behind Haiti was from the rest of the hemisphere.
As you know, January 12, 2010, the capital city of Haiti was
destroyed by a terrible earthquake. My thoughts were how
absolutely devastating to lose everything when you had started
with nothing. Soon afterwards, the Holy Spirit was “nudging
me” to try to help, mostly through questions asked by my
patients and co-workers wanting to know if I had plans to go to
Haiti. I did some research for one of the nurse anesthetist to
look for a surgical team for her to join, but didn’t find an Atlanta
group that sounded like a natural fit for me. Then I received a
call from Light of the World Charities, the surgical mission group
that organizes my surgical missions to Honduras.
Members of their team had just returned from Haiti with news that they found a hospital with functional operating rooms and an
organization, AHVED, of Haitians living in Florida who were dedicated to helping the people of Haiti who provided a house,
translators and cooks for the team. In a matter of a few days, we had organized a great team of two surgeons, an anesthesiologist
(Dr. Maurice Gilbert from Atlanta), two certified nurse anesthetists, a pediatrician, (Dr. Tom Adamkeiwitz from Atlanta), a dentist,
five nurses and a small support team. We were blessed to have Father Norbett, a Florida priest from Haiti, join the team as
spiritual leader and translator.
In a matter of a few days, we were prepared for the mission and then in one of those “all dressed up and no place to go moments”,
we were delayed for several weeks working on the logistics of flying into a disaster area. At the last moment, we ended up flying to
Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic and taking a fifteen hour bus ride to the highlands of Haiti to start our mission.
Our team stayed in a very nice (by Haitian standards) four bedroom house, with two (mostly) working bathrooms. There were
mattresses on the floor for the twenty-four of us (the previous mission team had over thirty folks staying in this house) and a
Haitian cook who provided three tasty, if simple meals each day. Each morning we had mass, then walked one mile to the public
hospital for a day of patient care and surgery. We ran two surgical suites pretty much all day and saw many patients in clinic for
wound care, suture removal, casting, etc. There was an x-ray machine at the hospital, but no running water in the surgery building.
The timing of our trip-five weeks out from the disaster-left me in a bit of an orthopedic “no man’s land.” The people who suffered
broken bones and crush injuries in the earthquake who had managed to leave the city for the part of the countryside where we
worked (65 miles out and three and a half hours on terrible roads) generally arrived two to three weeks after the earthquake.
Previous teams had applied external fixators, or casts on fractures and performed necessary emergency amputations. When I
arrived, most all of these folks had had their treatment already started and were in the “hold things still” so the bone and tissues
can heal part of their recovery. At clinic we changed lots of casts, removed sutures, checked healing wounds and treated infections.
Our surgical cases mostly involved secondary wound closures, treatment of infections, a recent gunshot wound to the forearm, and
some general routine orthopedic cases. There will be a continued need for orthopedic care-in four weeks all of those external
fixators will need to be removed and all of those amputations will be ready to start being fitted for prostheses. We had a great
team and we worked at a steady pace- a less “crazy” pace than previous teams.
The highlight of the trip was just being with the beautiful people of Haiti. The front porch of our house had one of the few
functioning light bulbs in town. Our pediatric nurse practitioner brought crayons, paper, beads and string. Each evening, our porch
filled with children and adults who enjoyed “arts and crafts time”, and were fascinated-terrified by “Rocky” my spring puppet, who
entertained us with games and typical childhood antics.
Sunday morning we arrived at the large parish church at 5:55 AM for 6:00 AM mass. The church was packed-we had to squeeze
into the pews. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best. Father Norbett was the celebrant and the music was wonderful. Ours
were the only white faces in the crowd-or for that matter, the town, and the only ones who couldn’t speak Creole or French-yet
we were welcomed and made comfortable as brothers and sisters in Christ. This experience again reminded me of the gift of the
Our last day we got up at 4:00 a.m. to begin the fifteen hour trip to Santa Domingo. We took time for a bus tour of the downtown
area of Port au Prince. I had seen pictures on the TV, but was unprepared for the vastness of the physical destruction. The
cathedral was completely destroyed except for the front wall with the stained glass windows and massive front doors which
somehow remained upright. The presidential palace-the White House of Haiti- looked like a large wedding cake that had been
dropped on the ground.
I have seen old news reels of European cities that were destroyed by bombing during World War II and looking out the bus
window in Port au Prince the destruction couldn’t have been worse if the city had been under military attack. While some buildings
remained upright, the only building I saw that remained structurally intact enough to be occupied was the American embassy.
Everyone else had migrated to the countryside or was living in tent cities-shanty towns in whatever green space they could find in
the city. And yet, life goes on. Men were standing on the roof of collapsed buildings with wheel barrows taking broken pieces of
concrete to who knows where. Teams of young people, in matching tee shirts, were sweeping the streets, and everywhere on every
street corner, commerce was taking place. Street vendors offered foot, water, candy, hats, sunglasses, and about everything else
you could need.
What I can’t imagine is the emotional toll this disaster must have extracted. Dr. Tom, who speaks French, was able to
communicate better about this than I was. We heard a few tragic stories, but I know there must be a million tragic stories from
Port au Prince. I am still trying to process the emotional events of our mission.
In summary, this country of beautiful, gentle people have lost all of what little material goods and comforts they may have had. It
seems the government, for the last fifty years, has not helped the people and seems incapable of dealing with the present disaster.
And yet, the people remain peaceful, care for each other, and have retained the ability to smile and laugh. If you know someone
going to Haiti, keep them in your prayers. If you are able to financially support a nongovernmental agency, please do so. If you feel
called to go directly to serve the people of Haiti, go, and please pray for the people of Haiti.
Peace of Christ,
Dr. John Kelley