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Pasco doctor wants to return to Haiti to continue giving relief

Dr. Leo Vieira, in hat, is surrounded by some children he helped in Haiti as part of a U.S. medical team that went to provide care.

Special to the Times

Dr. Leo Vieira, in hat, is surrounded by some children he helped in Haiti as part of a U.S. medical team that went to provide care.

TRINITY — It's back to the sinus infections and convenience drugs, back to the plush office with the flat screen television and mini-fridge. Back to dinners with the wife and kids.

But despite the good life in his Foxwood neighborhood, Dr. Leo Vieira can't wait to get back to Haiti.

Back to bunk beds. Cold showers. Tents set up in the middle of the street by families too terrified to sleep inside homes the earthquake rendered unsafe, if they still have homes at all. People with amputated limbs oozing with infection.

"I wish I were still there," said the 36-year-old family doctor for Morton Plant Mease, who returned last week after spending nearly a week in the earthquake-ravaged country. Vieira went with a six-member medical team to help tend to the sick and wounded.

The country was among the poorest before the 7.0 temblor on Jan. 12. The disaster only compounded the misery.

"You think about how little they had to begin with," Vieira said. "And you see this massive tragedy on top of it and you wonder how these people are going to make it."

Vieira secured a spot on the team through a friend he did his residency with in Orlando. That friend now works as a physician in the small South Carolina town of Newberry and had adopted a child from Haiti. The team got to Haiti by flying on a borrowed private jet owned by a prominent South Carolina dentist.

They flew to St. Petersburg, then Fort Lauderdale, then to the Dominican Republic, where they boarded a smaller plane to get into Haiti.

The airport there was tiny, "the size of the airport in Trinity before they tore it down," Vieira said.

"Cheated death one more time," the pilot said with a sigh as the plane skidded to a stop on the dangerously short runway.

The team finally arrived at its home base, an orphanage about 30 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital city located 10 miles from the earthquake's epicenter.

After settling in, they set up several clinics at various locations. Each day began about 5 a.m. By the time the doctors arrived about 8, lines stretched for what seemed like miles.

They treated 350 patients the first day.

Ailments included skin rashes, infections, headaches, abdominal pain, back and leg pain. Bad cuts with dried blood and mosquitoes buzzing around the wounds.

One man showed up with his left leg broken, held together with a makeshift dressing. Doctors cleaned his wounds, gave him antibiotics to prevent infection and applied fresh bandages.

Afterward, "he leaned over and reached into the trash to pick up the gauze so he could reuse it at a later date," Vieira said.

A surgeon in the group performed operations with one light a team member held. Most had little or no anesthesia.

Yet the people had a high tolerance for pain.

One 8-year-old had a growth on his eye the size of a marble, which Vieira described as "pinkeye gone bad."

"He just stood there," when the growth was drained with no pain relief.

Vieira said all the poverty and illness and injury could make it easy for members to feel like a week-long mission trip is pointless.

"Like peeing against the wind," was how one of his friends described it.

But many individual efforts will eventually add up, and that's how the team members chose to view it. That's also why they want to go back.

With help from an attorney who is one of Vieira's family practice patients, they are setting up a nonprofit foundation called People for Haiti to accept tax-deductible donations.

"It was a very humbling, spiritual kind of experience," he said. During the trip, members were amazed at the resilience of the people they met, like the 21-year-old translator who worked tirelessly despite having just lost most of his family in the earthquake.

He's now Vieira's Facebook friend.

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Fast facts

Want to help?

Visit www.peopleforhaiti.blogspot.com for details about the trip and the nonprofit organization being set up to continue offering medical care.

Pasco doctor wants to return to Haiti to continue giving relief 02/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 9:06pm]

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