Broward News

Orthopedic Surgeon From Imperial Point Tells Harrowing Tale of Post-Quake Haiti

At 73 years old, Dr. Georges Boutin had never been to Haiti, and he had no reason to ever go until a phone conversation he had two weeks ago with his daughter Pier, an orthopedic surgeon who lives with her husband, Mark Hyman, in Massachusetts.

The first pictures of the earthquake's catastrophic impact on Port-au-Prince were appearing on internet and television news. "She didn't ask; she said: 'We're going,'" recalls Boutin of his daughter. They were joined by Hyman and Cindy McCoy, the nursing supervisor at Imperial Point Medical Center, where Boutin works. Deborah Hawk, an anesthesiologist, also volunteered.

Juice mentioned Boutin last week after he appeared in a Boston Herald article, but this is the first time he's talked to the press since returning to the U.S. last week. It's evident he's still coming to terms with what he witnessed in the one week he spent feverishly trying to save scores of Haitians whose bodies were crushed by falling debris.

The Boutin family's incredible story, after the jump.

Hyman and Pier Boutin arrived in Fort Lauderdale not long after the quake, and they had somehow arranged to be flown to Haiti on the private jet of Tim Collins, a billionaire financier who's a friend of the Clintons'. But once they had a plane, the problem was finding a place to land it. "We stayed on the tarmac of the Fort Lauderdale airport for a couple of hours, waiting to get clearance," says Georges Boutin. It was Thursday, and the airports in Haiti were still in disarray.

But Pier Boutin is acquainted with Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a call to the Secretary of State's office did the trick. The group had permission to fly to Haiti. But once they got airborne, they had to spend two tense hours circling the demolished capital, waiting for clearance to land.

And even after they landed, they needed some lucky breaks to get from the airport to the hospital -- credit goes to Dr. Paul Fowler, director of Partners in Health, an organization that has been doing humanitarian work in Haiti for 20 years.

As Boutin explains it, most of the hospitals in Haiti are run by religion-based foundations. Those private hospitals were the traditional destination to Haiti's wealthy population. The Boutin team went straight to Haiti's General Hospital -- the one public institution in Port-au-Prince, and the traditional destination of the nation's poor.

Before the earthquake, it was an enormous facility, with some 700 beds. But the quake had leveled seven of the hospital's 12 buildings, including the one that contained 100 nurses, who all perished.

"Around the hospital, there were a bunch of streets, and as we arrived, we encountered thousands of people along those roads," says Boutin. "They were crippled; they had open wounds." And in most cases, they had been dragged there by desperate family members based on the hope that the hospital was functioning.

Except it wasn't. The Boutins started working immediately on that Thursday night, roughly 48 hours after the quake hit. But there was only so much they could do without the most basic supplies -- like lights and a bed.

By Friday morning, the group of physicians was given a single room in which to work but little else. There was no power; they used headlamps, like miners. There was no running water; they had to use what few bottles of water they could find. Without a bed, they used a stretcher as a surgical table. They ransacked closets, gathering what Boutin called an "eclectic" mix of useful instruments.

The most essential one: a hacksaw.  "The blade was worn out when we found it," says Boutin, who would need that saw to perform a dizzying number of amputations. It soon broke from the strain. The group's guide helped Boutin locate the owner of a hardware store that had been locked. Boutin bought all five of the store's hacksaws and all ten of its blades.

The supply of alcohol for cleaning surgical instruments and open wounds was gone before the end of the group's first full day. Boutin and his team had to use vodka.

Though the group had an anesthesiologist, it didn't have oxygen needed to administer anesthesia. Having no other choice, they used propofol, the painkiller made famous for its role in the death of Michael Jackson. That made it difficult for the physicians to monitor their patients' condition. Patient after patient received an amputation in what Boutin called a "guillotine fashion" -- that is, cut clean through and left open to keep infection from setting in.

After that first full day in Haiti, the team slept for just a few hours -- not in beds but on the dirty floor of that makeshift operating room. Exhausted as they were, it was still hard to sleep. There were the images of severed, infected limbs. There was the overwhelming stench of death. And there was a sound both familiar and terrifying.

"You know that sound that a truck makes when it's backing up?" asks Boutin. "That's what we heard all night, for the first two nights. It was the sound of front-loaders -- dump trucks that were literally dumping heaps of dead bodies."

But every day, there was some small miracle that kept the group's morale from crumbling. The arrival of some new, essential piece of equipment. A feast of military rations, after three days of dining only on Powerbars. The appearance of a new team of physicians, who could man another table.

By the end of the week, the M.A.S.H. unit had grown to five beds and was equipped with a triage that could help guide patient flow. In short, it had become functional, civilized -- and not a moment too soon for the Boutin team, whose members were absolutely exhausted.

"You can't last more than a week," says Boutin. "The physical and emotional toll is just too much."

Besides, a group of 30 well-rested physicians from New York's Mount Sinai hospital were flying in to take over. Boutin was delighted to receive an email from the group complimenting his team on the condition of their makeshift surgical center.

They had treated hundreds of patients, saved countless lives. But Boutin and the others in his group were left with a feeling of privilege, of luck: that they were merely visitors to a catastrophe, not victims of one. "When you come out of there, you say to yourself, 'I will never complain again,'" Boutin says. "Not when your cable goes out for a half-hour -- not for anything.

"It's something you can't even fathom," he continued. "The immensity of this disaster and how it affected everybody. It's so sad, not just the number of deaths but the people who had little to live with before this happened and who now have lost everything they ever had."

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Thomas Francis