On January 12, 2010, Haiti suffered a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The emotional aftershock of its devastating impact was felt around the world. The urge to help was overwhelming. Many countries, corporations and individuals responded to appeals for humanitarian aid, pledging funds and dispatching rescue and medical teams, engineers and support personnel.
Cleveland Clinic responded by working with international and local outreach organizations and MedWish International to provide basic supplies such as blankets, sheets, gowns and hygiene products for Haitians in need.
In addition, Cleveland Clinic Canada’s Director of Sports Health, Dr. Tim Rindlisbacher volunteered his time and expertise in bone injury and wound care to Haiti’s relief effort. To do this, he partnered with Humanity First and joined a team of international physicians traveling to Haiti to provide desperately needed medical care.
In this interview, Dr. Tim Rindlisbacher, also known as Dr. Tim, shares with us his experiences in Haiti.
You arrived in Port-au-Prince three weeks after the earthquake. What was it like?
The devastation was massive. It still is everywhere you look— from the destroyed buildings to the grieving families. Most Haitians now live in tents. These tents are their only shelter from the weather, but when it rains puddles form and everything they own gets soaked. The damp environment lends itself to the spread of disease.
What were your working conditions?
There were five doctors in my team and in the week we were there we saw 2,000 patients. Not a lot of sleep. They were 12-hour days. We were sleeping in tents with a dozen other people. We were lucky-our tents were waterproof.
The real heroes were some of the local people. There was one female doctor who had a clinic inside a church in the area prior to the earthquake. The earthquake destroyed the church. So in order to help her fellow Haitians, she set up a makeshift ICU (Intensive Care Unit) in the church courtyard. She was doing all she could without the proper equipment and in the sweltering heat.
Tell us about the clinics where you delivered the care.
We had three locations when we were working in Port-au-Prince.
One was a clinic we set up in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Another was at a community refugee camp. There were about 7,000 people living on a soccer field and they had no facilities-no clean water or food-and were in need of medical care.
The third location was a mobile clinic. We would drive to different neighbourhoods that had had little or no access to medical care since the earthquake. I saw fractures, nerve injuries and open wounds that had not been treated.
At all three locations, people were lining up at 8:00 in the morning, some waiting all day in the direct sunlight. We went all day until we had to shut the line down. We did our best to triage the people in line who were most sick, but it was hard because the needs were so great.
Did you have the supplies that you needed?
Yes. We brought a lot of our own supplies but also received some on the ground in Haiti from the World Health Organization. Before I left, the staff at Cleveland Clinic Canada were great. They raised money and donated supplies such as gauze, gloves, needles and syringes. The money was used by Humanity First to purchase medications and medical equipment such as crutches and canes.
What type of challenges did you face in trying to deliver care to this population?
It is important to keep in mind that there are language and educational barriers.
The literacy rate is about 50%. In Canada, if a parent was bringing a child to the doctor, they would know past and current medications and most likely would bring those with them to the appointment. In Haiti, they may only know the colour of the pill and not be able to provide what it was or why it was given. This greatly compromised our ability to provide care as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Even if people were in need of medical care they would not travel, but would stay in their neighbourhoods. There wasn’t that sense of, “I've got a serious problem. I need to leave and get help." They wouldn't do that. They wouldn't know how to advocate for themselves. For decades, their healthcare has been so poor that they seem to have grown to expect the same even in a crisis situation.
There was also a language barrier with most patients, so I did my best to pick up some Creole for the basic things, like pain, fever and diarrhea. Luckily we had translators working with us to help us understand the more complex cases.
How was the spirit of the Haitian people?
Strong. But you see the stress on their faces. They are living in tents and grieving over loved ones who are still missing or have died. They had very little before and now they have nothing.
How were the injuries different from what you typically see as a sports medicine physician in Canada?
Normally when you have a broken bone, you know what caused the fracture, such as a car accident. Typically those situations result in a one-time force on the bone. But down there that force, usually a wall or a ceiling, would sustain pressure on the limb(s) for an extended period of time. So, we saw not only broken bones but also skin and muscle tissue destruction around the bone as the rubble trapped people for hours or days. A lot of the fractures I managed were accompanied by nerve injuries and/or infections from open wounds that required additional medical attention and follow-up care.
Was it hard to leave when you knew so much more care was needed?
It was very hard, even though I knew I would be back to help. I'm returning in May during the rainy season because malaria is expected to be rampant.
It is clear that the need in Haiti is not going away any time soon. What can people do to help?
Everyone can do something to help.
- Donate money to provide food, water, shelter and care to the people of Haiti.
- Volunteer to provide health or community development care.
- Sponsor a child or family.
- Your family can adopt a child.
There are so many ways to help.
About Humanity First
Humanity First is a Canadian non-profit charitable and humanitarian relief organization, established to provide help and assistance to less fortunate fellow human beings around the globe and also to improve the quality of life in underprivileged countries.
Over 93% of donated funds are spent directly on aid projects. With the majority of its labour including skilled engineers and clinicians, and the ability to benefit from preferential rates for global materials, Humanity First is often able to deliver aid that is many times the value of the donations provided.
Learn more about Humanity First
If you are interested in booking an appointment with Dr. Tim Rindlisbacher, please call 416-507-6673.