Germany-based unit still flying Haitians to U.S. hospitals
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Seven weeks after the earthquake, U.S. Air Force flights out of Haiti still carry badly injured survivors to U.S. hospitals for the sort of care that isn’t provided in this poverty-stricken nation.
Last Saturday, helicopters and Humvees ferried six U.S.-bound Haitian patients from nearby hospitals and the USNS Comfort to a Mobile Air Staging Facility at the airport in Port-au-Prince. As they waited for their flight, the patients, each clutching a well-thumbed Bible, lay on litters in the MASF — a large green tent at the end of the tarmac.
The people coming to collect the patients — a crew from the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron out of Ramstein, Germany — are used to flying missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to crew member Master Sgt. Mark DeCorte, whose last humanitarian mission was to the Balkans in 1999.
“When you land in Afghanistan and Iraq, you’re worried about getting shot at and wearing a lot of gear,” he said. “There are bullet, blast and burn injuries. Here you get crush injuries and illness. There are a lot of spinal injuries and broken bones and ulcers from bed rest.”
Medical crew director Maj. Pablo Snead said his team has transported several injured children.
“A child is harder to deal with [psychologically] than an injured soldier,” he said. “We had a 6-year-old boy with a fracture that hadn’t healed. They did an MRI scan and found a sarcoma (cancer).”
If the boy hadn’t been treated by the medical personnel who responded to the earthquake, the cancer would not have been found and the boy would not have gone to the U.S. for treatment, DeCorte said.
“That’s one benefit of us being here,” he said.
One of the Haitian patients waiting in the MASF, Pierre James, 21, broke his back when a wall fell on him in the earthquake.
“I was in the top floor of my house getting ready to take a bath,” he said, through an interpreter. “The house collapsed and a wall fell on me. Some doctors were in the area and they got word to the Americans who came and rescued me.”
For seven weeks, James lay in a hospital at the airport in Port-au-Prince before he was scheduled for a flight to a U.S. hospital for more advanced care.
James and the other Haitian patients, along with a few relatives accompanying them on the flight, were briefed on emergency oxygen supplies and life preservers by a Haitian linguist before airmen loaded their litters onto Humvees for the ride out to the aircraft.
Once there, the crew stacked the litters inside the cabin and went to work on the tubes and electronic medical equipment hooked up to the patients.
“The biggest problem in flight is maybe their IV (intravenous tube) goes bad,” DeCorte said. “We have to give them drugs like pain control and antibiotics.”
The cold temperatures in the cabin at altitude can also affect the Haitians, Snead said.
“The folks here with not much body fat have a hard time adjusting to the cold up there,” he said.
Simple things like going to the rest room are a challenge in flight, DeCorte said.
“They are injured, there’s a language barrier and it’s noisy,” he said. “Sometimes they will go in their litter and we have to clean them up. That’s fine in a hospital but it turns into something different in a C-130.”
To get past the language barrier, the crew uses a colored chart called a “pointy talky,” DeCorte said.
“It shows all kinds of random things,” he said. “People can point to it and get their message across.”
However on Saturday’s flight, the patients were accompanied by Air Force chaplain Maj. Klavens Noel, a Haitian linguist.
“Mainly these patients ask me to pray with them, read scripture and provide interpretation of what the nurses and doctors are saying,” he said.
The patients that stand out are the children, Noel said.
“Little kids are oblivious to what is going on just want to have fun in the moment,” he said. “Humanity comes through in these tragic times.”
The air medical evacuation flights take Haitian patients to hospitals in Georgia and Florida and ill or injured U.S. military personnel to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., DeCorte said.
Hospitals that treat the Haitian patients are reimbursed by the U.S. government for the cost of their care, according to Maj. Brian Backus, 50 of Waterveliet, N.Y., the officer in charge of the aeromedical evacuation liaison team that helps coordinate the patient movements from the airport.
More than 300 patients have left Haiti on U.S. military aircraft and more have been transported by civilian planes, he said.
As the C-130 prepared to take off, James lay on his litter kissing a copy of the “Nouveau Testament” that contained a card with the words “God Bless USA” printed on it.
“With the help of God, I know I will walk again,” he said, adding that, one day, he hopes to join the U.S. military.