CALAIS, Maine — Dr. Robert Chagrasulis, a trauma surgeon in Calais, was in the first wave of international health clinicians to make their way to the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince after the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12.
In a recent telephone interview, Chagrasulis recalled the five days he spent with a clinical team treating dazed survivors of the quake at an open-air clinic on a soccer field in the ruined city.
“We set up under some trees,” he said. Survivors came in droves, seeking help for untreated fractures, festering infections, respiratory complaints, and aches and pains related to injuries they had suffered in the collapse of the city. Many people also had psychological symptoms — fear, grief, sleeplessness.
Haitian police helped keep the crowd of patients orderly.
Though the medical team treated a wide spectrum of illness and injury, Chagrasulis said they did not see many people with severe internal injuries.
“Almost all the injuries were orthopedic,” he said. “Most of the people with crush injuries died right away.”
The main hospital in Port-au-Prince was destroyed during the quake. Chagrasulis said people who sought treatment at the clinic for more serious injuries or who needed surgery or intravenous medications were taken to the United Nations hospital near the Port-au-Prince airport or to one of two small suburban hospitals still standing on the edge of the city.
For the past 15 years, as part of a church-based mission group, Chagrasulis has spent two weeks each year working at the Good Samaritan Hospital in La Romana, a city of about 150,000 on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. The city is home to the second-largest sugar refinery in the world, he said, and since many sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic are Haitian, over the years he has developed a rapport with that population.
In addition, Chagrasulis and other clinicians from the hospital in La Romana take mobile medical clinics to sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic to provide basic health services to the workers there.
Still, after the earthquake, despite his surgical skills, his familiarity with the Haitian people and his ability to speak French, Spanish and Haitian Creole, he didn’t volunteer right away to serve in Haiti.
“I wasn’t planning on going,” he said Tuesday, “because there is no way of being of use unless you’re part of a team, unless you have supplies and a place to work. I’m a surgeon, and you can’t do surgery if you don’t have an operating room.”
But then his phone rang.
“The CEO of Good Samaritan called me on Saturday [Jan. 16]. He said, ‘We’re taking in a team of 25; you would be of help,’” Chagrasulis said. Less than 24 hours later, he was on his way.
The team of 25 grew into a team of 100 — doctors, nurses and other clinicians, most of them Dominican. The group traveled overland from La Romana to Port-au-Prince — a 12-hour trek — carrying enough food, water and fuel to last two weeks. Once in Port-au-Prince, they worked long days at the soccer-field clinic and slept at night in a wrecked church, Chagrasulis said.
Chagrasulis said conditions are slowly improving in Haiti, but the need for help remains acute. Food, shelter and medical care are the most pressing needs, he said, and will persist for a long time.
Now back in Maine, Chagrasulis, who is president of the Calais Rotary Club, is spearheading a local fundraiser to purchase “shelter boxes” for earthquake survivors who have lost everything. Each plastic box contains a large tent, cooking supplies and other equipment for families experiencing long-term displacement.
Chagrasulis said Mainers who want to support Haiti’s recovery and rebuilding should make a standing financial commitment to an established humanitarian organization that is active there.
“There is going to be great need for a long period of time,” he said. “It is the long-term commitment that is going to have the best impact on the people of Haiti.”
Chagrasulis expects to return to the Dominican Republic in April. By then, he said, the Good Samaritan Hospital in La Romana likely will be treating an influx of Haitians seeking refuge from their devastated country.
“Haiti is so poor; they wanted to get out even before the earthquake,” he said.
Now, he added, “these are desperate people.”