Special Feature: Helping Out in Haiti

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Healing Haiti in the Dominican Republic

Spinal surgeon treats Haitian earthquake survivors in Santo Domingo hospital

February 26, 2010 | by Matt Paolelli
Video produced by Matt Paolelli

After watching television reports of the earthquake devastation in Haiti, Joe Weistroffer, M.D., knew he could help.

Weistroffer, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a spinal surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, previously spent time in the military setting up field hospitals and practicing disaster medicine.

But he didn't need to go to Port-Au-Prince to help the country's injured population. Instead, Weistroffer traveled to Dario Contreras Hospital in nearby Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The charity hospital was overrun with injured Haitian refugees who had crossed the border in search of medical care. Many of the victims were left paralyzed by the earthquake, and the volunteer efforts of a spinal surgeon could do a world of good.

New teams of medical volunteers from hospitals and universities across the United States were arriving to work at the hospital every day, Weistroffer said.  Through Feinberg's Center for Global Health, Weistroffer led a four-person team to the Dominican Republic, including Katherine Gil, M.D., an assistant professor of anesthesiology and neurological surgery, and ward nurses Louise Wasilowski and Maija Nelson.

The medical facilities in the Dominican Republic were functional but lacked some of the comforts of home, Weistroffer said.

"There was an up-and-running operating room with large autoclaves to sterilize the equipment, modern anesthesia machines that were run off of electricity and residents from the medical schools in the Dominican Republic to assist us," he said. "It was nothing like our hospitals here in the United States, but it was still a great environment to do a lot of surgeries and help a lot of the Haitian survivors."

Using instruments donated by the University, Weistroffer and his team adapted to the conditions of their environment and did what they could with the supplies at hand.

"We were only able to use about one-tenth of the pain medicine after surgery that we would use in the United States," he said. "People, though in pain, were very understanding and grateful for whatever help and assistance they received. The strength of the survivors was really impressive."

During their eight-day trip, the team directly operated on seven people, including four spinal surgery cases. When a larger group of orthopedic surgeons arrived later in the week, the Northwestern team assisted on almost 60 additional surgeries.

"In the worst of times, you always seem to see the best in people," Weistroffer said. "The biggest imprint on me was seeing people of different countries, races and educational and socio-economic backgrounds coming together for one purpose-to help their fellow human beings."

Topics: People