Back Porch Miracle
Former Ob/Gyn resident makes special delivery in Haiti
A few days before my scheduled departure for a routine medical mission trip to Haiti, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked a country already reeling from hardship, poverty and sickness.
The desperation in Port-au-Prince was palpable through our home television and my radio as I drove to work each day following the quake. It was even more astonishing to hear the pleas of journalists to a worldwide audience: “If you are a doctor and have medical supplies...we need you...now.”
My response to this request would lead me to the back porch of a Haitian orphanage I will never forget.
After gathering my thoughts, I called my wife to tell her I was going to Port-au-Prince to assist. The multitude of aftershocks made communication, as well as travel, extremely difficult. About 50 e-mails and 30 phone calls later, I boarded a flight for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from Nashville the following day.
I met up with a small team of medical personnel. After 24 hours of flight cancellations and delays, we all boarded a small charter plane for our flight into Port-au-Prince. Our transportation and safety were now in the secure hands of Heartline Ministries, a longtime ministry serving the poor in Port-au-Prince. Their orphanage had been inundated by injured men, women and children in the aftermath of the earthquake and was now a “makeshift” field hospital. My previous medical experiences in serving the people of Haiti, Guatemala and Africa, as well as my service in the Army, made me a good “fit” for this emergency response team. I hoped I could help.
The scene was one of unfathomable desperation. The medical need was exorbitant: head injuries, compound fractures, severe lacerations, amputations, burns, wound infections and disease. We had little anesthesia, as well as limited surgical equipment and supplies. Like thousands of other relief volunteers there, I asked myself, “Where do I start?”
Each day, we just kept working the only way we knew how…treating one patient at a time. On the back porch of the orphanage was the “OR,” comprised of a flimsy kitchen table, oxygen tank, and cardboard box filled with vials of Ketamine, the only anesthesia we had for surgical procedures.
After a long day of treating patients, I draped a mosquito net over me and lay down on the ground outside to get some rest. Minutes later, I awoke to learn a young, pregnant girl was in trouble. As an Ob/Gyn, I was needed. I grabbed my head lamp and ran a block or so to the orphanage. There I met a terrified teenager named Jennie, who was about 34 weeks pregnant. At first glance, I hoped that she was just in labor, but quickly learned she had been struck by a falling brick wall during the earthquake a week prior. Enduring the agony all week, she now had unbearable pain, and her bleeding was life-threatening. My exam revealed a placental abruption (a condition where the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus). It was a true emergency as now both the mom’s and baby’s lives were at serious risk.
To save them, our only option was an emergency Caesarean section with nowhere to operate other than outside on a shaky kitchen table, in the dark, on the very unsterile back porch of a Haitian orphanage. We did our best to prepare for surgery. Jennie’s baby had only minutes, if not seconds, to live. As ill equipped as we were, we began.
It took just 60 seconds. I made the incision with the scalpel (the only tool I had), got the baby out, and then passed a pale, limp and very frail baby boy to a pediatric ER physician. She worked frantically to resuscitate him. The anesthesiologist monitored Jennie. Meanwhile, I completed the operation with the only two sutures I had. A few minutes later, a faint, squeaky cry resounded in the night. The baby was miraculously alive. Now, the real challenge was protecting his mother from a life threatening infection as the surgery was in no way sterile. I administered and monitored her antibiotics. For the next five critical days, Joanna, a midwife, cared for her. Remarkably, neither fever nor infection resulted. Jennie and her baby are now doing very well. Two lives had been saved - a sign of hope in this tragedy.
This is the kind of thing that renews one’s faith amidst unthinkable human suffering. I will never forget Jennie’s smile and words as she uttered in Creole, “I will name him Christopher after the doctor who saved him.”
My small response had mattered.
Christopher Sizemore completed his residency training in Obstetrics & Gynecology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 2009. He is employed by Harpeth Obstetrics and Gynecology in Nashville.