As a member of a 25-person team, R.N. Melanie Thomas treated earthquake victims who were in desperate need of medical care
On Jan, 12th, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake jolted southern Haiti, and one of the hardest hit areas was the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Buildings were reduced to rubble, leaving millions injured, homeless, and struggling to survive. The expected death toll was estimated at more than 200,000.
Medical Teams International (MTI), formerly known as Northwest Medical Teams, immediately began sending disaster response medical teams of doctors, nurses and other health professionals to help those injured in the disaster. The first team arrived in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 15.
On Jan 20, Melanie Thomas of Burns, a registered nurse and a volunteer on the Disaster Response Team, received the call to go join the Disaster Team for three weeks in Port-au-Prince, and 24 hours later she was on a flight to Florida.
Because of the damage to the Port-au-Prince airport, only military and private aircraft were allowed to fly in and out of Haiti. Thomas and four other medical volunteers flew to Fort Lauderdale, where they then flew to Port-au-Prince on Howard Hedinger’s private Leer jet.
Hedinger is the Chief Executive Officer of American Industries and donated his jet to fly medical teams back and forth for a week to Port-au-Prince, and his employees donated the money to pay for the fuel.
Thomas was on a medical team of about 25 people working in various locations throughout Port-au-Prince, giving medical aid to thousand of Haitians.
King’s Hospital was a hospital created after the earthquake, as it was one of the few buildings structurally safe. The medical team of orthopedic surgeons, physicians, anesthesiologists, and nurses hit the ground running, giving medical care and operating on Haitians injured in the earthquake. “When the destruction is that overwhelming, the priority for us as a team was to help every person we could medically,” Thomas said. “There was rubble everywhere. Nothing was straight. All the buildings were leaning or fallen over. It was like driving through Universal Studios or a movie set, except it was real.”
Medical teams would also go out in mobile teams of four to five people to areas outside of Port-au-Prince that had not yet received medical care, including Carrefour, the epicenter of the earthquake.
A refugee camp of 17,000 people on five acres, all living under sheet tents with no running water, electricity, or bathroom facilities is where Thomas and others camped for days and nights giving medical care to anywhere between 300 and 500 patients a day. All of those people in the camp lost their homes, belongings, and even family members in the earthquake. “Sleep was overrated, and so often we were very busy, that as a team, we were constantly reminding each other to drink water, and eat something,” Thomas said.
Thomas stated that as word spread that medical help was available, the injured began to arrive in droves. Most injuries the team saw were broken and crushed bones, and open wounds, but also included pneumonia, scabies, respiratory problems, malaria and typhoid fever.
Thomas said one boy came in and pulled off his shoe, and half of his foot was gone. A woman limped in with a fractured femur. “Eight days she had had that fracture. That’s how long it took her to get to medical care,” Thomas said.
Another patient who arrived was a 12-year-old girl who had run out of her home when the quake hit, ran back in to pick up something she forgot, and as she ran back out, was struck by a car. The girl got stuck under the car and suffered third degree burns on her face from the muffler. Because the medical team had limited resources, the girl was flown to Miami for better care.
With every aftershock, the Haitian people would run from whatever building they were in to an open area. “People are still sleeping in the streets out of fear of another building coming down on them,” Thomas said.
The relief effort
There were several other organizations in Haiti to help with the disaster. They included World Relief, U.S. Army and Marines and Red Cross. This was the biggest medical team Thomas had been on, and even with the elite medical personnel she had the privilege to work with, there were no ego or control issues. “It was great teamwork,” she stated. “We decided we were going to do whatever it takes, and the cohesiveness among all of us could not be outdone. We were sweaty, dirty, hungry, exhausted and yet every team member had an encouraging smile, a heart full of compassion and the desire to help.”
Three weeks and thousands of patients later, Thomas arrived back in Harney County. “There were so many people who needed help,” Thomas said. “And everybody had a story.”
This was Thomas’ fifth trip to Haiti, and she plans to return again for 10 days with a medical team on June 17.
Often asked why she goes on these short term medical trips Thomas said, “I’m a firm believer in pay it forward, and if I can help just one person with the kindness I’ve been shown in my life, then the whole experience is worth it.”