The Grief, Misery and Moments of Joy at Israel's Haiti Hospital

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 19, 2010.
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The lines outside the Israeli field hospital were growing longer with earthquake victims pouring in, some seeking treatment for the first time since the January 12, simply because there was nowhere to go.

But despite the endless stream of patients and the moaning heard all around, the Israeli medical team was full of smiles on Sunday morning.

Yes, they saw plenty grief and misery in the first 24 hours of their hospital’s operation, but this morning began with joy. A healthy baby boy was born here over night and the medical team is swarming into the tent which is the obstetrics unit, to greet the mother and son. His three older siblings were taken out of town, but the mother could not travel. She was brought in by a relative and immediately went into labor.

The obstetrician, Dr. Shir Dar said it was an easy delivery and that mother and baby would be released in a few hours, due to the need to make room for other patients.

“It is definitely uplifting. It provides some counter weight to all the suffering we see all around here,” said Dr. Shir, “this is the happier part of our profession. It shows that life goes on despite everything.”

The grateful mother Jean-Michelle Gialant, 29, was preparing to leave the hospital and join the rest of her family, after posing for pictures with members of the medical team. And yes, she already has a name for the newborn: “Israel,” she said with a smile.

When asked, an Israeli staff member said that “it was probably our idea” to call the baby “Israel” but the mother was more than happy to embrace the name.

The joy of delivering baby Israel came after a long night of fighting for the life of another baby girl. She was brought in with her father who is in critical condition. No one knows her name or exact age, but it was clear she was in need for immediate care. With infected open fractures in both legs and signs of distress, the child needed urgent surgery. Doctors were fighting for her life. Twice during the night her vital signs began dropping, and as morning broke doctors were still far from optimistic. “It’s too early to know,” said one, adding that even if she does pull through, it will be a long way to recovery. “Where do we send her from here?” he asked, “she has no one.”

A few hours later a man showed up at the entrance of the hospital camp, carrying another toddler who has nowhere to go. The man would not give his name and only said he found the child in the rubble and thought he needed medical care. Then he took off.

The medical team quickly concluded that the toddler had not eaten or drunk for several days. He was not injured but seriously dehydrated and weak.

A few hours later, the toddler seemed transformed. Held in the arms of an Israeli army nurse and drinking baby formula from a bottle, he was looking around curiously, staring with big brown eyes at the medical personnel surrounding him. “Maybe we can take him home with us,” the nurse smiled as a doctor standing nearby replied: “I wish we could.”

Most patients arriving at the Israeli hospital suffered from orthopedic injuries. Operating rooms worked around the clock to save limbs and lives. But the children’s tent drew most of the attention.

For the medical team, it wasn’t only about saving lives, but also about cheering up the children who have seen in the past few days devastation and death enough for a lifetime.

Medical unit members pulled out a few inflatable soccer balls out of the cargo bins. They inflated surgery gloves as if they were balloons and decorated them with a smiley face. Nurses tried to engage with the children and provide some distraction.

In their makeshift hospital, doctors faced the need to make on-the-spot decisions, stretching the medical protocol to fit the emergency situation. Such was the case with Dr. Guy Lind, who was trying to treat a 3-day old baby suffering from continuous hemorrhaging. Lind drew on a procedure developed by the U.S. military in Iraq for treatment in combat and decided to give the baby an immediate blood transfusion.

From his own blood.

He rolled up his sleeve, provided the needed amount of blood and gave it to the baby. Hours later he could breathe a sigh of relief: It worked. The transfusion provided the baby with needed coagulants and the hemorrhaging stopped.

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