Helping patients in Haiti, one vertebra at a time

Posted on 06/29/10

By Dr. Koji Nakashima

Myrtha gives a thumbs-up to her accompagnateurs

Myrtha gives a thumbs-up to her accompagnateurs.

In early June Myrtha Dervil was brought to Zanmi Lasante’s (ZL) orthopedic clinic in Cange, Haiti, with severe neck pain. Her condition was so dire that she was actually unable to walk. She had been living with this pain since having been trapped in her home by falling rubble during the January 12 earthquake. X-rays and CAT scans revealed that both her skull and first vertebra—one of a series of bones that build the spinal column—had slipped forward onto the second. This movement pinched the spinal cord leaving her severely disabled. Myrtha needed appropriate care relatively quickly; if that were found, her prognosis would likely be good. Without immediate stabilization of her spine, any further shift could result in permanent paralysis, or even death. We knew that Myrtha needed critical neurosurgical care as soon as possible.

Claude Forest’s story may be different, but his medical needs proved to be relatively similar to Myrtha’s. After the earthquake, Claude, who had been suffering from intense pain in his neck and back since last year, brought himself to our hospital in Cange. We immediately recognized that he was suffering from a spinal condition that could leave him either paralyzed, or worse. Tests showed that Claude was likely suffering from tuberculosis of the spine. Like Myrtha, his spine bones were compressing his spinal cord, leaving him in constant pain, often unable to move. He was placed on anti-tuberculosis drug therapy, but his condition was worsening. Claude needed a neurosurgical evaluation.

Claude being carried to the World Food Program helicopter

Claude being carried to the World Food Program helicopter.

Our staff reached out to Haiti’s medical community and found a willing partner in the University of Miami/Project Medishare who have developed and staffed a trauma center at Bernard Mevs Hospital—a facility that specializes in, among other things, neurosurgery. Once a partner hospital was in place, ZL needed to transfer their delicate patients across Haiti’s bumpy terrain. To do this we called upon long-time partner, the World Food Program, who readily offered to provide helicopter transport for both Myrtha and Claude. This saved them a dangerous bone-jarring ambulance ride down to Port-au-Prince.

After a slow twenty-minute ride to the helicopter landing site outside of Cange, it was a quick fifteen-minute flight to the United Nation’s logistics base in Port-au-Prince where ambulances swept Myrtha and Claude to Bernard Mevs Hospital—a facility where doctors and aid workers have treated tens of thousands of Haitians injured by the earthquake. Once there, Dr. Enrique Ginzburg welcomed his two newest patients to the hospital’s spinal cord unit.

We are grateful for the generous work of both the World Food Program and the University of Miami/Project Medishare who have given Myrtha and Claude the long awaited chance for life and livelihood saving therapy.

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