MIDDLEBURY — Dr. Michael Kiernan recently took a break from his regular job treating patients at Middlebury’s Porter Hospital to work 20-hour shifts treating even more patients in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
It was an experience he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“This was the trip of a lifetime,” Kiernan said on Thursday as he transitioned back into his duties in Porter’s emergency room after having spent 13 hectic-but-fulfilling days caring for scores of severely injured patients at a medical center in Milot, Haiti.
It was thanks to more than $20,000 in community support that Kiernan was able to take himself and large quantity of medicine to the impoverished Caribbean nation early last month to help heal Haitians who continue to recover from life-threatening injuries they sustained during the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that leveled much of the capital city of Port Au Prince.
It was familiar territory for Kiernan, who had made some 10 humanitarian visits to Haiti prior to the quake. The TV images of the once-familiar, now-flattened terrain prompted Kiernan to hurry back last month to volunteer his medical services, along with dozens of other medical professionals who have sacrificed their vacation time and wages to work in the trenches at makeshift treatment centers, some based in tents.
It proved to be a cathartic homecoming of sorts for Kiernan. He found the hospital at which he had previously volunteered in Milot (northern Haiti) suddenly swelled from its usual 30-60 beds to more than 400 beds, overflowing into adjacent community buildings and tents.
He set right to work with other volunteer physicians, nurses and the Haitian medical staff, treating patients who had crushing injuries that by this time were in various stages of healing. A lot of the work, Kiernan explained, called for re-dressing and cleaning wounds that risked deteriorating further due to infection. Medical staff dispensed a lot of antibiotics and painkillers to patients teetering on the precipice between life and death.
“Within 24 hours, you were more or less a veteran,” Kiernan said of the how visiting physicians and nurses quickly became acclimated to their new patient load and workday, which for Kiernan often began at 6:30 a.m. and lasted past 10 p.m.
“You’d start your day by making a tool-belt of baggies and dressing tape, into which you would put syringes and morphine and other medications,” Kiernan recalled. “You’d go through the hospital administering medications.”
Some of the patients had already had limbs amputated; others were hoping to nurse their injuries to a point where they could avoid such a fate — and for good reason, Kiernan noted. He said it is very hard to survive on public assistance in Haiti, so any injury that took a citizen out of the workforce could be devastating. Paralysis, he added, is “largely a death sentence” in Haiti, given the lack of medical technology and aid for paraplegics.
There were times when the crush of patients was just too much for available staff to handle. Kiernan recalled pressing into service a group of retired physicians — some in their 80s — who had been visiting the hospital as administrative overseers.
“I needed them, so I put them to work,” Kiernan said. “You had these 80-year-old docs and their wives who worked tirelessly … It was very inspiring.”
Most of the foreign medical professionals volunteered for five- to seven-day stretches and would then rotate out. Kiernan, who stayed for almost two weeks, began his service as coordinator of one of the medical tents and concluded as chief officer of the entire Milot hospital operation.
He saw a lot of inspiring patients, medical professionals and everyday citizens during his time in Haiti. Kiernan was particularly touched by how virtually every patient had a family member, friend, or stranger at his or her side in the hospital, round the clock, tending to the patient’s hygiene and other basic needs. The helpers would sometimes sleep on the floor next to the patient, never leaving their side.
“I think I came away much more touched by the way Haitians care for one another than how terrific it was that people from the states were coming to help,” Kiernan said. “It’s wonderful that people were coming and generously giving their time… but it was far more touching to see people who had nothing — or had very little and had lost everything — in an immediate sense had access to generosity and joy and gratitude.”
There is around $13,000 left of the more than $20,000 donated by the Addison County community for Kiernan’s humanitarian trip to Haiti. That leftover money will be used to buy prostheses for Haitian amputees, he said.
Kiernan served notice that he has not made his last trip to Haiti. He hopes to return later this year to again volunteer his services in a country that he holds very dear.
“I want to find a way to incorporate the people of Haiti in my life,” Kiernan said.
Kiernan will share his experiences in Haiti at a talk scheduled for Wednesday, March 17, at 7 p.m. in Middlebury’s Ilsley Library conference room.
John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.