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Clearwater paramedic keeps returning to relieve Haiti's vast suffering

CLEARWATER — On Brad Keating's sixth trip to Haiti, the hospital where he volunteered admitted an infant with a high fever. After about two hours of diligent treatment, the medical staff couldn't save the child's life.

Keating, a 28-year-old Clearwater firefighter-paramedic, sees a lot of death during his trips to Haiti, an island nation still struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake in January 2010. During his most recent trip alone — it lasted a week ending June 2— he saw at least 15 patients die.

"You kind of get numb to the deaths," he said, "which is sad."

Keating feels driven to help. He ventured into Haiti for the first time only days after the earthquake, hoping to put his paramedic skills to good use. He still remembers the breathtaking scene when the team of Pinellas County medical professionals he traveled with landed in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

The scent and sight of smoke and death lingered. "We were confronted with probably 15,000 people right outside the airport trying to get in," he said, "because that's where they set up the field hospital."

Keating, who has worked for Clearwater Fire Rescue for seven years, has returned to Haiti five times since that first trip. He considers the distance — a 90-minute flight — a short trip. He feels it would be wrong not to help as frequently as he can, given the desperate need there.

"I don't ever intend to stop going," Keating said.

After the earthquake, Haitians hoped the world would help them rebuild their country. "I can tell you, two years later that is not true," Keating said. "They are pretty much left alone again."

Only about half of the promised $4.59 billion in foreign aid has been disbursed to Haiti, according to the New York Times. Rubble remains in the streets, Keating said, though he saw a few signs of improvement on his last trip.

"You notice at night there are more lights on," he said. "This time, I noticed that two of the tent cities by the airport are no longer there."

However, with poor sanitation, people still living in tent camps, and high crime rates, Haiti remains one of the poorest and least developed nations in the world, and its people continue to suffer.

• • •

When in Haiti, Keating volunteers at Hospital Bernard Mevs, the only trauma and critical care hospital in the country. It was established in 1994 by Project Medishare, a nonprofit organization that runs several health services in the country. But the care available there is far different from what is provided in hospitals in developed nations.

Medicines, equipment and expertise are often lacking.

Last year, Keating heard that St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue had about $15,000 worth of expired antibiotics. Keating asked a past co-worker, Dr. Rafael Santiago, an emergency medicine specialist at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, to sign off on using the antibiotics, which had been expired for about a month.

Santiago determined the drugs were still viable and approved them for use in Haiti. The medicine was enough to treat 10,000 people.

Santiago went along with Keating on his recent trip and also volunteered at Bernard Mevs, which has the only pediatric unit in the country. He said the medical dynamics are different there. In U.S. hospitals, lab tests help doctors diagnose illnesses and medical records follow the patients. Not in Haiti.

"Over there … you have very limited (access to) lab work. You just look at the patient, and think of what they could have, and treat them," he said. "The parents are used to seeing their children dying."

But there have been miracles.

During their recent trip, a man with a serious, water-borne bacterial infection, leptospirosis, was admitted. Blood seeped from his nose and ears and was in his urine. He bled from his eyes until he couldn't see. Without much hope, the hospital staff and volunteers began treating the man.

Later that night, Keating caught the patient looking at him.

"Can you see me?" he asked.

"I can see you," the man replied. "You're just a little blurry."

The patient overcame the disease after eight hours of treatment and some luck, Keating said.

"Everyone came over the next day expecting to find him dead and he was still alive and kicking," he said.

The lack of proper sanitation and drainage has led to other water-borne diseases, too, such as cholera, which appeared a few months after the earthquake. The New York Times reported in April that cholera has infected more than 530,000 Haitians and killed more than 7,040.

Hunger is another big problem. On his last trip, Keating held a malnourished baby girl in his arms. He could trace the ribs under the child's skin and point out bite marks from rats.

"That is just one example of the poverty there," he said. "There are malnourished children everywhere."

• • •

During each of his trips to Haiti, Keating keeps a journal.

In his last entry, he wrote: "There are so many reasons I keep coming back. This time, as I leave I walk through the pedi ward and see an orphan smile up at me. She is skin and bone … but still looks up and giggles. Her hope and happiness remind me why I'm here."

Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or drodriguez@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater paramedic keeps returning to relieve Haiti's vast suffering 07/10/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 8:05pm]
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