By Celine Klosterman
Treating thousands of patients in Haiti following the country’s devastating Jan. 12 earthquake was “so much more enjoyable” than daily nursing work in Iowa, Dean Vantiger said.
“They appreciate you,” said the emergency room nurse at University of Iowa Hospitals and member of St. Mary Parish in Dodgeville. The Yarmouth resident spent Feb. 1-10 in Haiti with nine other people who traveled there from the United States to provide medical assistance.
Never did he encounter a combative patient, he said. And “you don’t get people constantly whining for pain control. (Haitians) are tough. You’ve got to be to survive.”
Vantiger’s efforts were coordinated through World Wide Village, Inc., a Minnesota-based organization that supports Christian medical facilities, schools and churches in impoverished counties. Dr. Chris Buresh, who Vantiger works with at the University of Iowa, is associated with the organization and has made mission trips to Haiti for the past several years.
Vantiger and fellow volunteers from Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and other states saw about 250 patients from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily while in Haiti. “They’d start lining up at 6:30 a.m. and wait in the hot sun,” he said. The medical professionals ran a primary-care clinic, treated wounds and fractures, delivered numerous babies, provided OB/GYN care and performed surgeries in a school converted to a hospital. Plastic surgeons performed many skin grafts. “People would come on crutches, on the back of motorcycles or in the back of trucks. They’d have surgeries, and an hour later they’d go back home on a motorcycle. They’re very stoic people.”
Ibuprofen and Tylenol were generally the only medicines available for pain control. Operations, with anesthesia, took place on classroom tables in sweltering rooms without windows, air conditioning or consistent electricity. Cockroaches crawled across the floor. Recovery rooms consisted of mattresses or, under outdoor tents, cots.
But wound infections were rare. Bacteria were easy to kill, Vantiger said, because they hadn’t developed resistance to antibiotics introduced by foreign health care workers.
Without such workers’ aid, “the death toll would be astronomical,” Vantiger said. Typically, people seeking medical help at a Haitian facility must either pay up front or go untreated, he said – a dilemma in a country where 80 percent of people live in poverty, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Vantiger and fellow volunteers stayed in Léogâne, a city at the earthquake’s epicenter about 30 miles west of Port-au-Prince. Though the nursing school where the clinic was located had been built to American standards and survived the quake, 80 to 90 percent of Léogâne’s buildings reportedly sustained damage.
“People are living in the streets, city parks, sidewalks and in tin shacks,” Vantiger said. Whole families are living in 12-by-12 foot makeshift shelters, he added. One man begged him repeatedly for a tarp to offer protection from the rain. “We finally found him one.”
Despite the devastation, Vantiger said, Haitians could be heard singing and praising God at a church near the clinic nightly. “My faith grew stronger after seeing what they’ve been through and their religious conviction. Everyone who goes down (to Haiti) is completely changed. You’re so much more appreciative of what you’ve got.”
On Vantiger’s final morning in Haiti, a parade of singing Haitians approached the health care workers to give thanks as the volunteers prepared to leave. “There wasn’t a dry eye among us,” he said. “That’s when you know you’ve done the right thing.”
To assist World Wide Village’s efforts, visit www.worldwidevillage.org.