Maine medical team battles cholera in Haiti

Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 6:44 a.m.
Children, suffering from cholera symptoms, rest at a hospital in Cap Haitian, Haiti, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010. Anti-U.N. violence spread some cities of Haiti as protesters blocked roads and attacked foreigners' cars over suspicions that peacekeepers introduced a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,100 people. (AP photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Children, suffering from cholera symptoms, rest at a hospital in Cap Haitian, Haiti, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010. Anti-U.N. violence spread some cities of Haiti as protesters blocked roads and attacked foreigners' cars over suspicions that peacekeepers introduced a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,100 people. (AP photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

A medical team from Maine got home early Thursday after a grueling – and harrowing – trip to Haiti.

The five-member team from the Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency in Augusta spent three long days trying to save cholera victims in Cap Haitien, then had to get out of the city through violent street demonstrations and roadblocks.

“Every roadblock we passed, there were crowds of people with Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency machetes and sticks running at us,” said Dr. Chiedza Jokonya of Cape Elizabeth, a pediatrician and faculty member who led the medical mission.

Jokonya’s team included Nina Miller, another faculty member, and three primary care residents – Suhas Pinnaka, Prativa Basnet and Lalaine Llanto.

Twice a year, Jokonya leads a weeklong medical mission to Haiti’s capital city, Port-Au-Prince. This time, the United Nations asked the team to go north to Cap Haitien, where the cholera epidemic was overwhelming medical personnel. The team agreed.

“They desperately needed help up north,” said Jokonya.

As of early this week, the cholera outbreak had killed 1,034 people in Haiti and hospitalized 16,799, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

When they arrived in Cap Haitien, Jokonya said, the situation was chaotic. Everyone was getting IVs, whether they needed them or not, and supplies were limited.

“We spent a day just organizing triage,” Jokonya said.

Then she and the residents worked day and night, sometimes using flashlights, to treat cholera patients, some of whom arrived so dehydrated from vomiting and diarrhea that they could not be saved.

“The residents worked 72 hours straight with maybe a couple hours of sleep. All of them had patients dying on them,” she said. “We couldn’t stop. If we stopped, there was nobody to see the patients.”

The people at the hospital were grateful for the help, she said. But anger in the city’s streets made it difficult to leave.

“On the third day, when the U.N. was supposed to pick us up, that’s when the violence erupted,” she said.

Street demonstrations began in Cap Haitien on Monday over suspicions that the cholera was brought to Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal. Protesters threw rocks, blocked roads and set fires, forcing the airport to be closed.

The protests spread to Haiti’s capital Thursday as protesters blocked roads and attacked foreigners’ cars.

Jokonya’s team left the city Tuesday by truck after recruiting local men to provide security. They passed seven roadblocks, where they had to stop and move logs and, in one case, move a parked truck.

“We were stuck between groups of people,” she said. “There were fires along the way.”

When demonstrators threw stones or approached the truck, the local men got out and “talked them down,” she said.

The team drove three hours to Gonaives, where the U.S. Embassy arranged to take them to Port-Au-Prince, she said. They arrived in Boston late Wednesday and got home early Thursday.

“I don’t know what they are going to do if the (cholera) numbers increase,” Jokonya said. “I sent out appeals to groups of doctors to come and take our place, but because of the violence, I don’t think it will happen. This is the most frightening situation I have ever been in in my life.”

Jim Schneid, Maine-Dartmouth’s chairman, said the medical residency was glad to get the team home.

“We were all concerned for their safety when they were involved in the unrest,” he said. “They all knew there was a cholera risk when they went down last week, and they all had the option when asked by the United Nations to not participate. I’m very proud of the group.”

While the Maine-Dartmouth team was getting home, Nathan Nickerson of Portland was trying to find a way to get back to Cap Haitien.

The executive director of the Portland-based nonprofit Konbit Sante Cap Haitien Health Partnership was in Florida on Thursday, monitoring the security situation and hoping to fly to Cap Haitien as soon as today.

Nickerson, who was in Haiti just two weeks ago, hopes to help distribute medical supplies and water disinfection kits. But he said from Florida late Thursday that it wasn’t clear whether security had been restored enough to reopen Cap Haitien’s airport.

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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