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Boston Doctor Tells Of Treating Haiti's 'Pure Suffering'02:30

This article is more than 10 years old.
A Haitian girl, whose nose and cheek were shattered in the quake, holds her head at the main hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 16.  (David Gilkey/NPR)
A Haitian girl, whose nose and cheek were shattered in the quake, holds her head at the main hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 16. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Treating tens of thousands of Haitians injured by the earthquake has taxed the country's devastated hospitals, as well as the doctors from around the world who are helping to provide emergency care. Dr. David Mooney, a surgeon at Boston's Children's Hospital, just returned from two weeks in Haiti. In an interview with WBUR, Mooney described what he treated and what he saw.

Dr. David Mooney: The main issues were orthopedic.

Bob Oakes: Broken bones?

Not just broken bones, but broken bones where the bone was poking through the skin, where the infection was just something that's not seen in the U.S. anymore. And the person may have received no care or maybe someone put a bandage on it at first and then no further care.


Yes and, remarkably, tetanus. We all get our tetanus shots here in the U.S. and don't think much about it. But we saw at least two — very, here, rare-- cases of tetanus, one in a boy who had his finger amputated and then the tetanus spread to his body.

I should probably know this, but I don't know what tetanus does to a person.

It gives you lockjaw. It basically freezes your muscles and then you can't breathe.

Were the tetanus illnesses fatal?

The one was. The second child was a newborn who got tetanus in his belly button. I don't know what's going to happen with him and no one really knows what the survival chance is for an infant with tetanus because typically, in the third world, when that happens they don't receive any care and they die.

With all the orthopedic injuries, will all the broken bones and the protruding bones, there must have been more than a few amputations.

Well, we struggled hard not to do amputations. If someone has an amputation in Haiti, they'll likely never be employed and they will be a burden to their family and to that society until they die.

Now there are going to be, I don't know the numbers, but I would guess tens of thousands of people with amputations because the busier hospitals where the Haitians were struggling themselves to provide care, they wouldn't or couldn't do some of the things that we could do in our facility, where we would try to clean up the wounds and try to fix the fractures. And they would just do an amputation.

Rescue workers, survivors talk about the stench of death there because of are so many dead bodies, both still trapped in the rubble and on the streets. Did you experience that?

We did. On our travels from the airport to our site, we were struck not just by the degree of devastation, but by the smell and seeing a pile of dead bodies on the street.

And I was very struck, as we were leaving two weeks after the earthquake hit, to still see dead bodies on a major roadway. It's unimaginable to me, two weeks after an event like this, human bodies could still be allowed to sit on a roadway."

How difficult was it to leave?

It was very hard. I was exhausted. From that angle and from missing my family and those aspects, I was happy to leave. However, it wasn't done and will probably never be done. But it was very difficult to leave the patients I'd been caring for and to see more patients coming in the door that I knew I could help if I stayed.

Forgive me, but you look like you have a little bit of a faraway look in your eyes. I'm wondering if you think a little piece of you will be in Haiti for a long time?

I think it will. It seems a bit personal, but I feel things deeply.

And, being in an environment like that, experiencing just pure suffering — people with no food, no water, a broken leg — but also experiencing the amazing humanity of a child who is living in a refugee camp, maybe lost their mother and/or father, but yet has the gumption to take a plastic trash bag, make it into a kite and fly it over their camp, running along the edge of raw sewage.

You get the sense of how horrible things are, but then you get the sense that somehow it will turn out OK. That's something that I hope to keep within me that I think will make me a richer person."

Do you think you'll go back?

I was supposed to go back in March, before this happened. The previous plans I had are, I'm sure, fully changed now. But I'm sure I'll be back.

Dr. David Mooney, thank you very much for coming in, and a bigger thank you for your work.

Well, thank you very much. I'm very lucky to be able to do it.

Click "Listen Now" to hear the interview with Dr. David Mooney.

This program aired on February 1, 2010.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.


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