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Tampa surgeons join life-saving mission in Haiti

TAMPA — The young man's family begged American doctors not to amputate his leg. Just use more antibiotics, they asked. But the infection was too advanced. The leg couldn't be saved.

The scene played out recently in Haiti, where Dr. Henry Claude Sagi, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Tampa General Hospital and the Florida Orthopaedic Institute, had traveled to help.

Sagi, 41, was part of a small team of medical professionals who recently went to the Haitian town of Miragoane, where they tended people injured in last month's devastating earthquake.

"You can just see the mental anguish that they're going through," said Sagi, who has returned to his home in South Tampa. "But at the same time that they're suffering, they don't complain about their suffering. The people really appreciate what you are able to do for them."

As a surgeon at TGH, Sagi is used to treating patients with broken bones and soft-tissue wounds, like those prevalent in Haiti. Still, the massive number of people needing treatment for such major injuries made this experience unlike anything he had encountered.

The trip, coordinated by Help Brings Hope for Haiti, based in Tampa, brought the surgeons together to establish what was the first outpost for medical treatment in the area of Miragoane, a coastal town west of Port-au-Prince.

The group included Dr. Tim Bradley, an orthopedic surgeon at St. Joseph's Hospital, Dr. Hank Hutchinson, a surgeon from Tallahassee, an obstetrician and two nurses.

"As soon as the local people got word that there were medical personnel at the facility, they started to flood the place," Sagi said.

Some dragged their injured bodies over hills and through fields to reach the outpost. Others were carried in by relatives or friends.

People with broken limbs. People with open wounds, decayed and infected from going untreated for several days.

In a week, the facility treated more than 200 people.

Help Brings Hope assembled the team by sending a mass message to local doctors and others, seeking volunteers for the mission, said Hillary Aubin, the organization's director of medical services.

The organization then financed a private plane on which the doctors flew to the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

Sagi recalled seeing Haitians living and working in the streets, avoiding the interior of buildings that remained for fear that they would collapse in the quake's aftershocks.

From Port-au-Prince, two Haitian-American guides accompanied the group to Miragoane, where they spent evenings and early mornings in their guides' home.

Using more than 400 pounds of medical supplies, the doctors worked from about 7 a.m. to as late as midnight, taking no breaks, Sagi said. The treatments ranged from amputations to using pins to reset broken bones.

At the same time, unsanitary conditions and a lack of equipment such as X-ray machines limited the type of treatment they could provide, Sagi said.

Injured Haitians, like the young man and his family, feared being stigmatized after amputation of limbs, Sagi said.

Another man, a second-year law student, said he wouldn't be able to finish school after having a leg amputated.

Still, complaints from the Haitian people were scarce, Sagi said.

"They are very appreciative of what you can do for them," he said. "It's the real true doctor-patient relationship as it should be. It reminds you that this is really what it's all about: helping people."

How to help

Help Brings Hope for Haiti is a nonprofit organization that was established in 2003 to offer educational opportunities, community building and medical assistance to Haiti. The organization continues to sponsor mission trips to the country and collect food and medicine for Haitians. For more information about volunteer opportunities and donations, call (813) 258-5558 or visit the group's Web site at hbhh.org.

Tampa surgeons join life-saving mission in Haiti 02/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 4, 2010 3:30am]
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