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January 22nd, 2010
02:38 PM ET

The strength of the littlest victims

By Elizabeth Cohen
Senior Medical Correspondent

The wounds of the earthquake victims here at this makeshift hospital are so deep you can see the muscle and fat in the gaping holes. I watch doctors and nurses clean these wounds aggressively, because if they don’t get out all the dead tissue, infection will set in and quickly kill the patient.

As you might imagine, cleaning these wounds hurts like the devil, even with pain medication.

Nurse Fabienne Goutier, right, tends to Jean Wesley Marc, 4, and his father, Manes Marc, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“I was cleaning a 3-inch deep wound in the calf on this 3-year-old boy. We gave him two shots of morphine first, and I told him I’d give him some candy when we were done,” says Fabienne Goutier, the charge nurse at the makeshift hospital where I’ve spent the past five days. “But he still screamed and screamed because I was really digging, digging, digging, getting out all that necrotic tissue.”

As promised, when she was done, Goutier, who’s working with Project Medishare in Haiti, gave the little boy candy.

She walked by the boy’s cot a short time later, and he looked up at her and smiled.

“Candy?” he said, offering her the sweets she’d just given him. “Candy?”

“I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” says Goutier, who in her regular job works as a nurse at Homestead Hospital in Florida. ”After what I just did to you, you’re sharing your candy with me?”

The resilience of the 32 children here at this Port au Prince hospital continues to amaze me. Pretty much the only time I hear them cry is when they’re having their dressings changed when by all rights they should be wailing 24-7. I’m sure all of them have lost people they loved in the earthquake. They’re severely wounded, some with broken bones that are too complicated to set here. Food and water arrive sporadically. Many of them have had an arm or a leg amputated. They’re filthy and in a strange place, surrounded by grotesquely wounded people
Oh, and they also just experienced a terrifying, traumatizing earthquake.

Five of the kids have a special reason to cry: The hospital staff believe they’re orphans, alone in this hospital of 135 patients. There are more doctors and nurses around to attend to them now, but when I first arrived Thursday night the staff was sparse and running from emergency to emergency, and so for days the orphans were left on their own most of the time. When they had to urinate they had no choice but to do so in their clothes.

Despite all this, these kids are really quite calm. The ones I’ve seen aren’t fussing and aren’t panicked. They have nothing to do but look around hour after hour, day after day.

“I have yet to hear anyone complain,” says Tony Menendez, a trauma nurse at the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, who’s volunteering at the hospital. “They just lost their family, some of them just lost their limbs, and they’ve just come to accept it.”

I asked Goutier, who grew up in Haiti to explain to me how these children could be so calm and mature under such desperate circumstances.

“Haitians are very resilient,” she says. “Even little children are expected to be grown up and do things like carry water. When you’re 5, you’re 25.”

Filed under: Elizabeth Cohen • Haiti Quake
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Dan Nelson Lafayette,IN

    Haiti being the poorest nation in the western hemisphere has had need for many decades and have learned a great Christian lesson, to be happy with what you have. I think the majority of the parents have taught their children this great lesson and the children are happy to see that the world cares for them. We all should help the best we can even in Prayer!

    January 22, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
  2. christie

    I am so afraid for the 2010 hurricane season, no place for anyone to go, i pray that El Niño will keep this season low!

    January 24, 2010 at 8:44 am |