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Local physicians assist survivors of Haiti quake
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Local physicians assist survivors of Haiti quake

In caring for injured, surgeon, wound expert heed a higher calling

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Dr. Benetta Miller, a surgeon from South Orange, helps Haitians find the right pair of donated eyeglasses.
Dr. Benetta Miller, a surgeon from South Orange, helps Haitians find the right pair of donated eyeglasses.

Two local physicians, a surgeon from Maplewood and a wound care specialist from Mountain Lakes, are back from Haiti after assisting survivors of the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Dr. Benetta Miller, a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, spent the first week of February in Haiti through a medical mission organized by Guardians of Healing. She was one of two Jews on that mission, which included about a dozen doctors. It marked her first experience with an overseas medical mission.

“Every surgeon wants to go when you see something like this because you’re doing what you’re trained to do: provide services without all the politics of medical care in the U.S.,” she said. “As a surgeon, where you really want to be is on a battlefield or in the middle of a disaster.”

Dr. Bruce Mintz, an internist specializing in vascular diseases and wound care, headed down to Haiti the week of Jan. 17 with a group called AMHE, Association des Medecins Haitiens a l’Etranger. Although a veteran of medical missions around the world — he has traveled to Cambodia, China, Ghana, and Nigeria — the trip to Haiti marked his first experience in a trauma zone.

The two doctors provided vastly different care. About three weeks after the quake, Miller’s group set up one-day walk-in clinics in different neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince. By contrast, Mintz worked in a hospital setting providing emergency care in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Both commented on the sophistication of the care being offered.

Mintz spent his week in a 400-bed “tent city” hospital recreated in the courtyard of a collapsed hospital in Port-au-Prince. He was assigned what would eventually become three tents, including 120 beds of a post-operative unit.

“It was rather like a scene out of Dante’s inner circle. It was really extreme. At the same time, the physicians there were among the most extraordinary I have ever met,” he said.

There were plenty of amputations and degloving injuries — injuries in which the skin is pulled off the body like a glove. Circumstances were less than ideal.

“There were needs and problems and bad things that happened, infections, and a lack of supplies,” he said. The amount of work they did every day was “mind-boggling. The nurses worked like animals,” he said.

Mintz worked alongside other American doctors as well as physicians from France, Spain, and Norway. “Everybody was there doing surgery — 20 to 30 amputations a day,” he estimated. “Yes, it was frustrating that we couldn’t give the type of care we can give here — but the care was so far superior to anything they’d ever seen before.”

When night fell on the first day, Mintz didn’t know what to expect. In the states, doctors go home, and a night shift of nurses takes over.

“Miraculously,” he said, a new set of physicians showed up from University of California, San Francisco, and they became the night crew. And a group of young military medics volunteered to help out.

“Everything was, ‘yes, sir’ or ‘no, sir; anything you say.’ It was never ‘we’re too tired,’” he said. “As horrible as the circumstances were, it was an unbelievable show of humanity. It was the most proud I have ever been of being a human.”

A former member of Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, he said he had an intensive Jewish experience. “I could not get out of my head the concept of hineni,” or the idea that when God calls, you say hineni — literally, here I am, said Mintz, who practices in Denville. “I was thinking about it all the time I was there.”

The reality of the disaster set in for Mintz when it was time to discharge one particular patient. “In my profound lack of sensitivity, I said, ‘Okay, you’re ready to go home. Why don’t you call a family member to pick you up and take you home?’ She began to cry. She said, ‘Well, my house is gone and all my family is dead. There’s no one to pick me up and I have nowhere to go.’”

‘Pretty sophisticated care’

For Miller, the scene was less intense, and not exactly what she had expected when she signed up for the trip. She mostly saw people with chronic medical problems — “people with diabetes, people with high blood pressure, things like that,” she said. “There were a lot of people with basic headaches, stomach aches, just feeling crummy. Everyone obviously feels pretty crummy since this happened. But at least we were able to assure them it was probably nothing serious.”

Her medical team was able to give patients a month’s worth of medicine until the next group came through.

“We saw a little bit of people who had had surgery done by one of these emergency trauma hospitals and were back in their home communities, but not as much of it as I would have thought,” said Miller, who practices in Jersey City. “We were surprised at the level of medicine they had received. They received pretty sophisticated care and were recovering quite well.”

The trip whetted her appetite for medical missions, and she plans to return with the same organization to the Dominican Republic later this year, where she will perform pre-scheduled surgeries — but probably on residents there, rather than on victims of the Haiti quake.

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