Haiti's hurt come to South Florida
MIAMI — His arm rests in a cast, his hand is damaged, his shoulder is dislocated and his knee must have more surgery, yet Lt. Col. John Christopher Thomas considers himself among the lucky for surviving Haiti's earthquake and making it home to South Florida for treatment.
The Weston resident is among dozens of U.S. citizens evacuated to local hospitals, as South Florida takes on a growing role in medical relief to the ravaged island nation. That role includes sending down teams of doctors, nurses and emergency supplies, including one group opening a 300-bed field hospital at the Port-au-Prince airport.
"My injuries are recoverable. I'll heal," said Thomas, who was struck by a hotel room door as he tried to flee the quake. Bloody and wounded, he managed to reach the U.S. ambassador's residence. "But the others ... My co-worker, Ken Bourland, they have yet to recover his body."
Survivors and doctors who have returned from Haiti since Tuesday's catastrophic earthquake tell horrific tales: hundreds of thousands injured, limbs crushed, amputations without anesthesia, the stench of death and growing fear of infections and epidemics.
Thomas, who works for the U.S. military's Southern Command in Doral, was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Medical Center in Miami, one of at least 23 evacuees treated there; another 14 were sent to North Broward and Broward General medical centers, hospital officials said Sunday.
Many arrived in serious or critical condition and remain in intensive care. At least one has died, officials said.
Even veteran doctors who work at one of America's busiest trauma centers have been breaking down in tears, Dr. Barth Green, a University of Miami neurosurgeon, said Sunday after a Haiti mission. A veteran of more than two decades with the university's Project Medishare in Haiti, he led what appeared to be the first medical team to reach Port-au-Prince after the quake, touching down Wednesday morning.
"The second we got off the plane, they took us to the United Nations compound where their meeting tents were filled with moaning and screaming patients," Green said Sunday in a TV interview. "Almost all of them had crush injuries. People were dying literally every minute. ... We were doing amputations on kitchen tables."
Medishare and its partners are starting the 300-bed hospital in portable tents by the Port-au-Prince airport. They're running two private jet flights a day to Haiti, while helping the United Nations and others coordinate relief teams, said Dr. William O'Neill of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who visited Haiti with the group Thursday.
"The need is absolutely vast," O'Neill said Sunday, urging cash donations to help pay for transport and other basics for the medical teams. "And we desperately need Creole-speaking nurses on our teams. None of the patients speak English, and communications is a serious problem."
But even with medical teams streaming in, care is so limited in Haiti that thousands more people may need to be evacuated for medical treatment to the United States and many other nations, O'Neill said.
On Sunday, the U.S. Air Force landed a C-17 cargo plane at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, with several medical evacuees bound for Broward General Medical Center. At least two more Air Force planes were expected to land Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, said airport spokesman Greg Meyer.
The new evacuees join those already in South Florida including Thomas, 46, and Christa Brelsford, 25, an Arizona State graduate student whose crushed foot had to be amputated at Jackson Memorial Medical Center in Miami.
Brelsford's family, who flew to Miami to join her, rejoiced on Sunday that Christa is still alive and so positive. They thanked Haitian friends who helped dig her out of debris and carry her by moped to a Sri Lankan mission. They also thanked officials who arranged for her evacuation with her brother Julian, 27, also injured in the quake. The siblings were working on a literacy project, helping develop a school in the Caribbean nation.
"It can happen to anyone — an earthquake, a car accident, a house burning down," said Theresa Brelsford, 59, the mother of the two survivors and a special education teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. "It's part of living on earth. We just have to be there for each other.