Inspired in the quake zone

Two Central Coast women recently returned from separate medical missions in Port-au-Prince with something in common: admiration for the Haitians’ endurance amid disaster.

Before the trip, recent Cal Poly graduate Heidi Swangler of Atascadero did not know if she would be able to handle the smell of death.

She assisted physicians from Oregon in a makeshift clinic beside a collapsed hospital, from which she said the nauseating stench would sometimes blow.

As a volunteer with Virgin Islands nonprofit Haiti Community Support, Swangler held the hands of toddlers receiving stitches, created mixtures of sugar and salt to combat infant dehydration, and, after washing a young girl’s irritated skin, received a kiss on the cheek.

She witnessed a boy named Jaque remain calm as a doctor reset his painful, dislocated hip. He had been lying in his grandmother’s yard for two weeks.

“I am a very emotional person,” she said. “But if I would have cried, people would have looked at me strange. No one was crying. They were just picking up their lives and enduring. So I told myself, ‘OK. I need to be strong.’ ”

Meanwhile, Mimi Batin of San Luis Obispo, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton, was deciding whether to salvage or amputate crushed limbs.

Two hours after she arrived in Haiti on Jan. 24, Batin said she had encountered an operating room in disarray in the Adventist Hospital of Diquini.

She searched boxes for intravenous bottles, turned the boxes into shelves to hold medicines and joined a team of South Africans in a week of 10- to 14-hour shifts of surgery and primary care. Haiti Mission Outreach, a charity in Grass Valley in Northern California, organized her trip.

“The wherewithal of the Haitian people is absolutely amazing, despite the environment,” Batin said. “Everyone has a story of someone who died, but they have the ability to focus on the survivors.”

Still, both women noticed a high occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder among patients.

Batin heard gunshots fired as a famished group of Haitians argued over rations of rice in a tent city. She also heard rumors that civilians were shooting inmates who had escaped from prison during the earthquake.

“I am an inherently positive person,” Batin said, “but they have a long way to go before any single individual will feel a sense of hope there.”

Batin said she was able to treat, rather than amputate, 90 percent of the limb injuries that she encountered. But each patient will need three to six months of follow-up visits and antibiotic use to prevent infections.

Batin said she has cleared one week a month to return to Haiti. Swangler is now deciding between a career as a nurse practitioner or a doctor, so she can deliver definitive care to victims of disaster and underserved communities.

“This is what I want to devote my life to,” she said. “Now I know I can do it.”


For details or to donate to Haiti Mission Outreach, visit www.haitimissionoutreach.org, and learn about Haiti Community Support at www.haitisupport.org.