COLUMBIA — It took 72 hours to assemble a team of 13 people with one mission: to help the people of Haiti.
Nine Columbia medical personnel were part of the team who volunteered their time and medical expertise last month to help the Haitians who survived a devastating earthquake.
The 7.0 magnitude quake on Jan. 12 killed 200,000 people and left thousands more injured and homeless.
Just 72 hours after the earthquake, the Missouri team mustered. They left left on Jan. 25 for Hôpital Sacré Coeur in the northern town of Milot. The hospital is part of the Center of Rural Development for Milot, a St. Louis-based foundation established in 1968.
Dr. William Guyol, the St. Louis physician who headed the team, is on the center's board of directors. Guyol pulled the team of volunteers together quickly, with the help of Columbia-based support: nurses Jennifer Baggett, Heidi Ennenbach, Marie Milewski, Mark Gortmaker, and Karen Althage; physicians Holly Bondurant, Rick Coats and Adam Wheeler; and flight paramedic Rick Baker.
Dr. Robert G. Flood and pediatric transport nurse Mary Laffey of Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis were also on the team, as was Charles Dubuque, the vice president of Ronnoco Coffee. He is the son of the Haitian hospital founder, Dr. Ted Dubuque.
For six days, the team worked long hours to help the overwhelming need of injured Haitians being flown in from Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s hard-hit capital, said Baggett, who had been in Haiti in March.
“It’s pure suffering," she said. "They’re homeless; some patients’ entire families were killed. The manpower is not there that needs to be there."
Limited access to supplies added to the challenge of treating patients effectively and forced the volunteers to sometimes make difficult ethical decisions — who to help and who to not help, Baggett said.
Gortmaker recalled one such dilemma: The hospital only had one ventilator, and a man in an operating room was using it. With only 64 beds and five makeshift operating rooms, the volunteers had to make a decision: Let this man live, or save 50 others by using the operating room.
The man died after being removed from the ventilator.
“There is such a lack of equipment there,” Gortmaker said, “In the states, this wouldn’t be a problem.”
When supplies weren’t on hand, volunteers were forced to be creative.
“A guy went to a junk yard and got a car fuse to fix an anesthesia machine,” Wheeler said.
The volunteers said they were impressed with the Haitians' efforts to help each other and the strength they displayed.
A Haitian girl around age 12 particularly moved Wheeler.
“She had been trapped under a building with the crushed bodies of her mother and cousin and was struggling with why she survived and they died,” he said.
Some patients began singing gospel music. One of songs included these words: "The reason I lived is so I can worship you."
The girl's look of happiness as she sang the lyrics, despite the guilt she felt for surviving the earthquake, struck Wheeler.
"There are people here who haven't figured it out," he said. "Yet this 12-year-old girl living in the poorest hemisphere in the country who probably just lost everything had it figured out."
It was difficult for many volunteers who are also parents to see children in Haiti suffer.
Gortmaker, a father of four, remembers one boy in particular: “His arm was amputated, and he was probably orphaned. I thought about his future and how he will live in this country where 60 percent of the people are unemployed with so little opportunity.
"I would have brought him home if I could."
Even though Gortmaker couldn’t take the child home, he plans to help in other ways and may return to Haiti next year.
Baggett is heading another team of volunteers who will head back to Haiti Feb. 13. She has faith that everything will come together.
“I have faith in God that he will put the right people in front of me. I trust that it’s going to happen,” she said.