Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kevin Olehnik was already planning a trip to Haiti when news of the Jan. 12 earthquake reached him. Olehnik is part of a team of physicians, most of them graduates of the University of Notre Dame, who have been working in the coastal city of Leogane.

Leogane, about 20 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, is four miles closer than Haiti’s capital is to the epicenter of the earthquake. Olehnik described the buildings there as mostly limestone huts with metal roofs.

Olehnik, who practices at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, said Monday he plans to leave for Haiti as soon as possible to help provide much-needed medical assistance. He said for now, however, those in charge of the rescue and recovery efforts are restricting medical aid to the Caribbean nation to military medical personnel only. Supplies are still being flown into Haiti via Santo Domingo, he said.

Olehnik said a trip planned for February would have been his fourth with the InterVol team. InterVol was started by Notre Dame graduate Dr. Ralph Pennino with the goal of eradicating lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease spread by mosquitoes and commonly known as elephantiasis.

In past years, the InterVol team, supported by funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has provided medicines that, if taken annually for eight years, would eradicate lymphatic filariasis, Olehnik said. Those who already show manifestations of the disease have been treated with surgery.

“It has to do with dirt and filth and garbage,” Olehnik said of the disease. He said there is no proper sanitation or water delivery system in the country, which comprises the western third of the island of Hispaniola, between Cuba and Puerto Rico.

“People walk to polluted streams and fill milk jugs with water,” he said. Others purchase water that has been frozen in plastic bags. “The bags add more garbage,” he said of the growing piles of trash that fill the landscape. Olehnik said rubbish and garbage are periodically piled up in intersections and burned, but the burning is often incomplete.

“The poverty starts when you get on the plane,” he said. “On the airbus from Miami they tell you it’s the oldest plane in the fleet.” Once passengers arrive in Haiti, he said, the stench of poverty fills the air.

“There’s this smell that stays in your nostrils for weeks after you get back,” he said. This is the odor of decaying and burning garbage, he said.

The InterVol physicians usually spend six days in Haiti each year. Over the last two visits, Olehnik said, he worked on 29 cases. Most of those were related to lymphatic filariasis, he said, but he has done a variety of surgeries, including one Caesarean section.

“When you go down, everybody in town knows you’re there,” he said. “Impromptu clinics pop up.”

“This time it will be much different,” he said. Medical assistance is being carried out from three locations, he said. Physicians may be placed in Haiti, or at Guantanamo Bay or aboard the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship based in Baltimore.

“We’re trying to get into Leogane,” Olehnik said. He said InterVol has been receiving e-mail messages from people in that city, asking team members to come. He said it might be as much as two weeks before he and other civilian physicians arrive in Haiti.

Most of the injuries during the Jan. 12 earthquake were the result of falling objects and crushing. Olehnik said he spoke recently with a physician who had spent a few days in Haiti and the injuries they discussed were femur fractures and a condition called missed compartment syndrome that occurs when crushing creates a lack of blood supply, causing the muscles to die. He said that as time goes on, he expects to see more cases of renal failure and dehydration because of Haiti’s poor water delivery infrastructure.

“Ninety-five percent of the Haitian population is Roman Catholic so the destruction of Leogane’s Roman Catholic Church, St. Rose, is especially hard on the town,” he said in an e-mail message that accompanied photographs of the wreckage. “Prior to the earthquake this was a completely enclosed church. All four walls, steeple, and large rose window on the front are all now reduced to rubble surrounding the church.”

Olehnik said InterVol has continued to have regular e-mail contact with people in Leogane since the earthquake struck.

“They are lovely people,” Olehnik said of the Haitians he has met and worked with. “They have nothing, but they are the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever met.” He said that even though he and his mostly white associates stand out in crowds on the streets of Leogane, they have never been threatened in any way.

“They’re always grateful to have us there,” he said.

On Jan. 21, an e-mail message confirmed that Olehnik and Drs. Doug Cole and Lars Ellison had arrived in Leogane to help provide medical aid to earthquake victims.

Funds donated to InterVol will be used to purchase wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and other equipment needed by earthquake victims. Olehnik said it costs $10,000 to send two tractor-trailer sized containers to Haiti, and the organization plans to fill and send two containers a day. The group is also purchasing tents to provide housing for the homeless, who either have no place to live, or can’t return to buildings that are no longer stable.

To donate, send funds designated for InterVol Haitian Relief to InterVol at 1425 Portland Ave., Box 138, Rochester, NY 14621 or visit the Web site at intervol.org.

 

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