Face of Defense: Nurse Aids Patients in Haiti

By Air Force Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
Special to American Forces Press Service

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla., Feb. 11, 2010 – The massive earthquake that struck Haiti Jan. 12 changed the lives of countless people forever.

Perhaps no one group has been more exposed to the bare humanity of the disaster than the medics who were on the forefront, providing lifesaving care to those who survived the magnitude 7 earthquake.

Air Force Maj. Jon Earles, one of four critical care nurses with the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron here, treated more than 100 patients during his time in Haiti Jan. 21 through 24, working with other medical technicians at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Before the five-hour flight to Haiti, Earles said he had an idea of what the quake-stricken island would look like.

“I saw the devastation in pictures and on TV, but it was pretty surreal to see it when we were flying over or driving through a city,” he said. “There would be one building still standing and 10 in a row were completely leveled. It reminded me of when I saw a building get imploded in Las Vegas. They were that flat.”

The quake’s aftermath also took its toll on the country’s hospitals, with few left to accommodate the large number of survivors needing treatment.

“There were thousands of people just outside the embassy,” he said. “The medical facilities still standing were overwhelmed.”

Despite his team’s willingness to help, they faced limitations from the quantity of resources to meet the needs of so many patients.

“We were not built for that type of sustained mission, to see patient after patient,” Earles said. “The supply chain from the [1st Special Operations Wing] was what kept us going, otherwise we would have run out of supplies the first day.”

Using the embassy as their central site to treat patients, military medical teams set up the building’s conference room for surgeries. Part of Earles’ critical care nurse training taught him to perform surgery in any area of opportunity, no matter the conditions. Teams had to use lounge chairs for operations instead of the preferred hospital operating table.

Prior to the arrival of medical teams, survivors were treated with whatever crude resources were available.
“I heard a lot about the Civil War-type medical conditions, with people using hacksaws and no anesthetics for amputations,” Earles said.

While his medical teams traveled with all the necessary narcotics and anesthetics to medicate all their patients appropriately, Earles had to treat patients who had already received care from people not surgically trained.

“Some of the people who performed amputations weren’t surgeons, and that’s something you don’t want to see,” he said. “We saw some people with bones sticking out with no dressing on it.”
Many victims who had amputations and spinal cord injuries will require more help for the rest of their lives, Earles said.

One of the cases that stood out, he recalled, was a woman pulled out of a wrecked hotel who had both of her arms amputated.

“She was a beautiful, young woman and she was left with no arms,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘How is she going to feed herself? Who is she going to have to take care of her?’ You wonder what’s going to happen to her. We have all these social services in the States where people undergo amputations and later get prosthetics. She’s not going to have any of that.”

Earles said the devastation made him think of all the things he had back home.

“They’re without drinkable water and have little to eat,” he said. “It’s incredible what hardships the people there are going through.”

Earles returned here Jan. 24, but was awaiting the call to go back to Haiti and help others.

“No matter how much you do, you wish you could do more because there’s such a great need there,” he said. “I was only there a short time, but I’m glad we were able to help the people we did.”

(Air Force Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden serves with the 1st Special Operations Wing public affairs.)


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