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Local physicians return from Haiti

FALLBROOK – Walt Combs, M.D., is no stranger to the hardships people in Haiti face daily. He has been there 40 times over the last 14 years, volunteering his expertise as a primary care physician.

“From the first time I was there, I was completely hooked and could not help but return,” he said.

Combs knew he was needed again when the quake struck Haiti on January 12. Working with The Haiti Endowment Fund, an organization that has been helping the Haitian city of Hinche for decades, he helped organized a team of his physician colleagues from Fallbrook Hospital.

The Fallbrook team included orthopedic surgeon Robert Pace M.D., anesthesiologist Paul Phelps, M.D., and trauma surgeon Mathew Wilson, M.D.

What they found in Hinche was so devastating that Combs describes it as a thousand times worse than anything he had ever seen before.

“It was as if I was going to Haiti for the first time. I didn’t even recognize it,” said Combs.

Just getting to their destination on January 22 – 10 days after the quake – illustrates the impossible conditions in Haiti. It took three days to reach their destination by air and another five hours to drive just 47 miles to the Haiti Endowment Fund.

The Haiti Endowment Fund feeds 3,000 children daily at its compound, improving their health significantly. It brings in vitamins and worm medications, and has a well-digging program to help lessen health issues related to living with dirty water. There is also a 250-bed hospital in Hinche, and that was the Fallbrook team’s destination.

Upon their arrival, the team was greeted with 20 people suffering femoral fractures - 40 hours of immediate work for one team. “There were too many orthopedic injuries for any single organization to handle,” said Dr. Pace.

Complicating matters, most of the medical team’s equipment did not arrive until after they left Haiti. Constant adaptation and resourcefulness were necessary. They borrowed supplies from other volunteers and utilized whatever they could find to carry out their mission. Bottled water was used in the operating rooms, sterilization was done with chemicals, and the team’s carpenter built a special table to assist them with applying large casts on children.

Fortunately, some of the equipment donated by Fallbrook Hospital did arrive including an external fixating device, which addressed compound tibia fractures and is still being used in Hinche.

“One of the experiences that stands out for me involved two children who were at the Hinche hospital with absolutely no care since the earthquake two weeks prior,” said Combs. The children, ages two and 11, had lost their parents and traveled to Hinche by themselves for help.

Pace, who had never been to Haiti before, encountered endless cases of orthopedic injuries. Patients had open tibia and femoral fractures which had resulted from falling cinder-block walls. A woman with bilateral compartment syndrome above the knee had to have one leg amputated, and Pace and his team performed two more below the knee amputations while in Haiti.

He was struck by what his patients had already endured.

“I appreciated the patience of these people, many of whom had lain in bed with minimal help for 13 days, waiting for someone to do something,” said Pace.

After all of his previous trips to Haiti, Combs was deeply affected by this experience. When the team left after six days of non-stop work, Combs said, “It is very difficult to come home to our lifestyle, with all of our comforts, when your mind flashes back constantly to the children we left behind - laying on cots, in a hot, humid, dirty hospital.”

The Fallbrook team members know they saved lives and alleviated suffering, but they also know their work was just a beginning.

“This is going to be a long-term problem for the people of Haiti; there will be need for continuous help down the line for these injured people. Amputations, infected joints, fractures – these all require chronic help,” said Pace.

Combs is already preparing future teams to go to Haiti.

“As a physician, I cannot imagine anything more rewarding than to serve suffering people in this way,” he said. “It is therapeutic to know you are doing something.”


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