Eyewitness to Hell: Dr. Scott Burke on Haiti's medical nightmare

Just a few hours after touching down in Denver, after a week of performing emergency amputations in a makeshift operating room in Port-au-Prince, local surgeon Scott Burke was trying to catch up on his sleep and rid his mind of the grim images of the devastation in Haiti.

Most of all, he was trying to shake the frustration of rescue efforts gone awry. Burke saw pallets of urgently needed surgical tents and other medical supplies sitting idle at the airport, along with hundreds of U.S. troops, while his team toiled with brittle sutures and rotting surgical gloves. He saw starving wild dogs ripping into biohazard bags and running off with severed limbs. And he saw dozens of people die for lack of blood transfusions and other simple but impossible procedures.

"It was appalling," he says. "If we had something as basic as a blood supply, we could have saved half of the ones who died in the hospital. But a lot of people never made it to the OR."

The Haitian government now estimates that 150,000 people have died since the January 12 earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince. Burke was part of a team of Colorado physicians, including orthopedic surgeon Andrew Motz and anesthesiologist Ron Edgar, who flew to the island a week ago to help with relief efforts. Burke says the experience presented a dramatic contrast between the well-coordinated but ill-stocked missionary groups and the bureaucracy and inertia of the U.S. military presence.

The Christian relief organizations "worked incredibly well together," Burke reports. "They did a wonderful job. When they unloaded a plane, the stuff was on its way to the hospital within an hour."

Yet some of the supplies available to Burke's team from charitable groups were all but useless, including surgical gloves well past their expiration date that quickly fell apart. Using only a local anesthetic, performing up to three dozen amputations of gangrenous limbs a day on four operating tables in a narrow room, the surgical team quickly ran out of sterile gowns and IV supplies. When Burke tried to get more from the well-equipped American troops at the airport, he was flatly refused.

Burke protested and was threatened with arrest by an Army sergeant, who insisted that the medical materials belonged to the military. "There was quite a bureaucracy there," Burke says. "The military is not very good at humanitarian projects."

He estimates that a fifth of the amputation patients died shortly after surgery. Some made remarkable recoveries, in light of the severity of their injuries, and more United Nations troops and international surgical teams arrived shortly after Burke did. But the prospect of rampant disease from so many corpses and lack of adequate water, food and sanitation is going to be a daunting challenge for weeks, if not months. "The biggest problem is going to be sanitation," Burke says. "Everything smelled of death."

After removing the leg of one injured young girl, Burke was thanked profusely by the child's father. The man told him he had an MBA degree and had lived in a large house -- but he'd lost his wife and most of the rest of his family in the earthquake. He insisted on thrusting his cloth bracelet into Burke's hands.

"I used to be a wealthy man," he said. "Now this is all I have."

Burke says he may return to Haiti in a few weeks. "As long as they need us, we'll go back," he says.

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