Doctor commits to crushing task

bmorem@thetribunenews.comJanuary 24, 2010 

The work of Dr. Scott Nelson is crushing. It’s crushing in the numbers of people he’s treating in Haiti since the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country was leveled by a magnitude-7 earthquake on Jan. 12.

The wounds he’s seeing are crushing in nature, the horrific result of humans caught in flimsy construction when the quake hit.

And the scope of the tragedy is taking its own crushing, psychic toll on those who have gone to the island nation to help repair the torn and mashed bodies of men, women and children.

• • •

Scott Nelson, the son of Peter and Suzanne Nelson, moved to San Luis Obispo in 1970 when he was a week old. In retrospect, it’s safe to say he had medical missionary blood running through his veins: His grandfather, Dr. Olavi Rouhe, served for more than 25 years at a mission in what was then the Belgian Congo. Nelson has said that after having visited his grandfather’s African hospital, church and compound when he was 8, he decided to go into medicine.

That decision, as well as an international outlook, was probably reinforced when he joined his father, a San Luis Obispo dentist, on travels to 25 countries around the world where Peter would work at dental clinics.

• • •

Nelson, 39, is a devoted Christian who has followed a family tradition in attending the Seventh-day Adventist Loma Linda University in Southern California. Indeed, his great-grandfather was the president of the university at one time. Nelson graduated from Loma Linda in 1996 in orthopedic surgery with an emphasis on children. He thrives in what he does, says his father, and that enthusiasm has led him to be one of the top surgeons in his field.

As it turns out, Nelson’s Christian ethic and professional skills dovetailed nicely with a nonprofit organization called CURE International. It’s a nondenominational organization that specializes in childhood bone deformities in developing countries.

So he joined forces with CURE and packed up wife Marni and sons Chad and Alex five years ago and headed to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for a five-year medical and faith-based mission.

The work is a challenge on every level. The pay, for example, is $20,000 a year and requires that he return stateside to practice one week every three months at Riverside County Hospital to help make ends meet.

And there’s physical menace attached to his Dominican practice: Each of the 22 times he’s traveled to Haiti to perform surgery on that island nation’s club-footed children, he’s had to be on the lookout for kidnappers who have been known to return at least one abductee without an arm because he could only raise half his ransom.

But Scott Nelson loves what he does and whom he does it for. He takes deep satisfaction in being able to mend a child’s orthopedic deformity, which, really, is somewhat of a miracle that can make all the difference in how that child can make his or her way in life. It’s that fulfillment that his father says led him to say at one time: “The best payment I ever got was two mangoes and a hug.”

• • •

When word came that parts of Haiti had been devastated on the other end of Hispaniola from Santo Domingo, Nelson quickly put together a team and chartered a plane for the 160-mile flight to Port-au-Prince.

As we now know, confusion, uncertainty and disorder was already reigning at the Port-au-Prince airport. Who was allowed to land was as much of a panicked mystery as to who was allowed to take off.

After circling for an hour, Nelson, according to the plane’s pilot, “sweet-talked” ground control into letting the plane land for three minutes.

“I got him on the ground,” the pilot later related, “but I don’t know what happened to him.” What happened was Scott Nelson and team immediately went to work.

• • •

Peter Nelson has been in sporadic touch with his son; last week, Scott Nelson told his father in a phone call: “ ‘Dad, I get about two to three hours of sleep a night. I’ve had about 90 surgeries so far (as of Jan. 19), with another 20 patients lined up and another 100 left outside. I can’t go outside because they’ll mob me (for help).’ ”

“Are you doing lots of plates and rods?” the senior Nelson asked his son.

“ ‘No, because of the crush wounds, it’s not reconstructive surgery. I’ve literally been cleaning maggots out of wounds. There’s terrible infection and gangrene. Once we get them healing up, then I can go back and do the reconstructive work.’ ”

When Peter Nelson asked his son how he was holding up, he replied:

“ ‘I’m doing good right now, but two days ago I thought I was falling apart. But I’m doing better.’ ”

He told his father that the trauma surgeons who had come to Haiti to help him “ ‘just fell apart and started crying; they couldn’t do it anymore. They’ve left now; couldn’t take it. The psychological coping of the situation was overwhelming to them.’

“I know they’ve got a lot of physicians on the ground working, but they’re all going to leave in two weeks because of their practices,” Peter Nelson said. “There’s going to be a need for a lot of long-term care, and he’s committed himself to being there for the next six months. He’s going to need long-term support.”

Want to help? Go online to lluinhaiti.blogspot.com.

“Thoughts and prayers in his behalf are just as important as money,” Peter Nelson said. “He’s our front man, but we’re all part of the team.”

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.

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