Ruben Cohen '97 shares his Haiti medical relief story
Dr. Ruben Cohen '97 practices oral and maxillofacial surgery in New York. He travels often to Africa to provide free surgical treatment to children born with facial deformities, and he went to Haiti to provide relief medical care in the aftermath of last month's earthquake. He provided BrandeisNOW with this personal narrative of the trip:
"I went to Haiti on the first commercial flight that United Airlines had started to operate as 'humanitarian flights' to help send relief workers and supplies to Haiti. Most of the crew was volunteers, and the passengers were all volunteers from all walks of life: doctors, EMTs, search and rescue, and small organizations going down to deliver anything from food and water to diapers. An hour before we boarded the plane, I was watching the news in the waiting area where the newscasters were reporting breaking news of a 6.1 aftershock that had just hit Haiti. All of us were caught off-guard by this: we had developed enough courage to get on that flight, but few of us had thought of aftershocks! The flight itself was pretty emotional for the crew and passengers as none of us knew what to expect, and there was a cold silence as the flight took off to a destination that remained a mystery to all of us.
"We landed at the Port au Prince Airport, which was full of military personnel, planes, and tents. What was immediately evident was the presence of an international presence: there were planes from all over the world, and different languages were being spoken everywhere: we walked to the United Nations compound to register, then attended a meeting that the U.N. had organized for all medical volunteer organizations to meet, share ideas, and network. That's where I met a colonel from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) who had come to represent IDF's medical field hospital. By this point, the NGO I had traveled down with had proven to be completely disorganized and didn't even have an idea as to where they were going to spend that night. The IDF Colonel invited me to go back to the IDF camp with him to meet the commander and see if he would allow me to work with them. Commander Yitshak Kreiss immediately invited me to stay with them, stating that they were actually in immediate need of a facial surgeon because they had just admitted three patients with facial fractures, others had soft tissue injuries, and another patient had a tumor in his jaw.
"Becoming part of the IDF Field Medical Hospital was an honor I had never imagined and an experience that I will never forget. The field hospital was beyond anything I had ever seen and did not even compare to any of the other medical treatment centers that I later visited in Haiti. The amount of detail was remarkable, and nothing had been missed: they had setup their camp on a soccer field in a completely secured area, and beside the usual wards and operating rooms, they had an adult ICU, neonatal ICU, a laboratory, cast room, digital radiography, satellite dish for communication...and even flew in a whole kitchen staff! The operation was completely self-sustainable and had become operational within hours of the earthquake!
"The majority of the injuries were crush injuries to upper and lower limbs. Homes in Haiti are made of concrete block walls, which just collapsed during the earthquake, crushing victims. While I had gone to Haiti expecting to do mostly anesthesia, I ended up treating a lot more facial trauma, the majority of patients being young children crushed by concrete that had fallen on their face. I remember growing up in LA, and we had always been taught that the first thing you do in an earthquake is cover your head and get under a table or a door. This basic principle was either never taught to children in Haiti, or it did not make much of a difference: kids had avulsive injuries on their face, some requiring skin grafts, and/or repair of facial fractures.
"It was interesting to see the change in the kind of patients that came to seek medical treatment from us. In the beginning, we only saw earthquake-related injuries, but by the end of the trip, we started to see patients with chronic illnesses and diseases come through the hospital. For example, we diagnosed a 10-year-old boy who came in with swollen and bleeding gums with leukemia; an older woman with a neck mass who had advanced lymphoma; a male patient with mumps; some doctors saw patients with tetanus. One patient presented with a large disfiguring bony mass of his mandible, which had been growing for over five years.
"On Friday, a group of us decided to take a few hours off and go into town to see the damage that had taken place, and see how other medical teams were working. We hired a driver, and drove out. Many of the buildings in the city were totaled. Concrete walls were in pieces, cars had been crushed, and people were sleeping on blankets in the streets. There were 'tent cities' set up throughout the city for people to sleep in who had lost their homes. We saw a truck distributing water, and next to it was a crowd fighting to get a small bottle of water. We went to visit the General Hospital, which is where many international medical teams had set up to treat patients. Most of the hospital buildings had been evacuated, so medical teams had set up tents in the courtyard area to treat patients who were placed in every little space available to them. It was amazing to see so many medical personnel from all over the world, all set up in one hospital, working under the brutal heat and poor conditions, all trying to achieve the same goals.
"We came back to the IDF compound that night for Shabbat dinner, which was a very memorable moment. It was amazing to see all these Jews in Haiti, thousands of miles away from their homes, yet it was Friday night and we all gathered for Shabbat dinner!
"Perhaps my most memorable and touching moment was the next day, when I accompanied my patient with the jaw tumor to the airport to board a charter flight for Florida. We were standing where the planes parked, waiting for the plane to land, watching all the activity of planes landing, cargo being unloaded, military people everywhere.... the plane was late. An American woman and her husband walked by us, and we made small conversation, going through the usual questions everyone asks a stranger. The wife's name was Mrs. Hayes, and she had flown down to Haiti that morning to search for signs of her 23-year-old daughter who had been missing since the earthquake. She had been all over the Dominican Republic searching for her daughter in hospitals, she had gotten false hopes all week, and the two of them had decided to come down to Haiti, looking for closure. Courtney Hayes had come down with a group of college students from Lynn University the day before the quake to distribute food and visit schools and orphanages. Earlier that day, the Hayes had gotten confirmation that their daughter had been crushed in her room at Hotel Montana, and they were now flying back home. She showed me a picture of Courtney that her friends had taken just a few hours before the earthquake, where she was smiling and having fun, holding onto that moment and repeating that she was happy, that she died doing something she was so passionate about, helping kids in need. I took out my camera, and showed her pictures of all the little kids we had been treating these past few days, and desperately tried to convince her that her daughter's loss was only just the catalyst to accomplishing the mission Courtney had come down with her friends to accomplish: kids all over Haiti were eating and getting medical treatment that would never have been otherwise. I also showed her a picture of my patient, who was about to get on a plane to face a new beginning, a new life! We hugged, and wished each other a safe journey, and she thanked me.
"On the plane down to Haiti, a reporter asked me why I was going down there, and I said why not? CNN was showing clips of people having surgical procedures without anesthesia, and I knew I could help them. I was going down there with four boxes of donated supplies and equipment, but he continued to ask me why. I guess I just wanted to make sure that I did my part, because I did not want to assume that someone else was going to go if I wasn't willing to go myself. Looking back at all the patients I helped, the new friendships I made, and my attempts to comfort a mother who had just lost her daughter, I am thrilled that I had the courage to get on that plane in Chicago, and grateful that I had my wife and daughter's support."
Click here to read about Dr. Elie Schochet '97's Haiti relief experience.