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Surgery in Haiti: Weiss Doctor Volunteers Two Weeks to Care for Haiti’s Injured

Mar 23, 2010

Contact: Catherine Gianaro
cgianaro@weisshospital.com
(773) 564-7285

For many people watching the news in January, the images from post-earthquake Haiti were heart-wrenching scenes of loss, sadness and destruction. But for Kris Alden, M.D., Ph.D., the pictures were a call to action.

“The scope and breath of the orthopedic injuries that I saw made a profound impression on me,” he said. “I just felt compelled to go there and help.”

Dr. Alden, an orthopedic surgeon at Weiss Memorial Hospital and clinical associate at the University of Chicago, volunteered his medical expertise with a team from the University of Chicago Medical Center. Within four weeks of the earthquake, he traveled to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, along with 36 duffel bags of medicine and supplies to assist the relief effort. The team of 11 people—doctors, nurses and other clinicians from UCMC—then drove to Fond Parisien, a small village about 18 miles from Port au Prince. They worked at a field hospital located on the grounds of a former orphanage, where they arrived to see rows of tents and hundreds of patients. The existing buildings were too dusty, dirty or unstable to use as operating rooms. Dr. Alden and the other medical staff, working seven days a week in a tent operating room, performed orthopedic trauma surgeries, ranging from fractures to amputations. The operating room medical equipment was powered by diesel generator, which also powered the small autoclave used to sterilize the surgical implants and equipment.

For the first week he was there, Dr. Alden used a hand held pediatric X-ray machine to assess patients’ injuries, mostly broken bones caused by the destructive force of the earthquake. The doctors cobbled together implants from donated parts and spare pieces of orthopedic devices. “When you have no options,” Dr. Alden said, “you just do what you can.”

The medical team worked 13 to 15 hours every day. Dr. Alden then returned to the tent he shared with a colleague, an occupational therapist from UCMC. They slept on the ground, in sleeping bags.

The medical team was battling their own health problems as well, unused to the temperatures in the upper 90s, and sometimes hitting 100. “Preventing dehydration was a constant battle,” Dr. Alden said. Their once-a-day meals usually consisted of PowerBars they brought themselves and rice supplied by aid organizations. Showers were not an option.

“It was suboptimal, as far as normal cleanliness was concerned,” Dr. Alden said, adding that the conditions were very dusty, and they were watchful of infection in their patients. But they had plenty of antibiotics and excellent care by a dedicated team of nurses and physicians from around the world.

“The patients were very grateful for everything that was given to them,” Dr. Alden said. “Not just by the University of Chicago team, but also the medical equipment, food supplies and shelter, all through the generosity of the American people.”

The University of Chicago will continue running the hospital in Fond Parisien, staffed by volunteer medical professionals from the Medical Center, for several more months. Read current updates about their work on the Haiti Relief blog.

Dr. Alden is part of the Joint University team at Weiss, which performs knee and hip replacement surgeries. For more information about that program, visit Joint University.