Dr. Keith Lafferty held the baby pulled from the rubble of Port-au-Prince in his arms. An hour later, the baby, name unknown, was dead.
The infant was one of the patients Lafferty, 43, of Sunset Boulevard in the Cold Spring section of Lower Township, Cape May County, lost during his week in Haiti following the devastating earthquake Jan. 12. Lafferty, an emergency room doctor at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, Atlantic County, arrived in Haiti on Jan. 16, on one of the first medical teams in the earthquake zone.
“A lot of people died. They died right in front of us. There was a smell of death everywhere, the smell of end-stage infection,” Lafferty said.
A week in the rubble for such a tiny infant caused wounds no doctor could cure, and the baby became one of the estimated 200,000 victims.
There were plenty of others whose lives he helped save as he worked 24-hour shifts in Port-au-Prince, sandwiched in between a few hours of sleep. He even treated a 12-year-old girl who doctors believe was a slave. She ended up being delivered to an orphanage where she can now get an education and play with other children. Lafferty said children in Haiti without parents who do not find an orphanage become servants or slaves for other families.
“This kid has a new life right now,” Lafferty said.
Smile of life overrides smell of death
When Lafferty left Haiti, he was surprised that the lasting image of his week was not death but the smiles of the children he treated. He said they were polite and stoic. They never whined during treatment. Yes, they would scream out in pain, but he said they never complained about that pain.
“What I’ll remember most is the smile of the kids. The Haitian people are resilient. The kids are as happy as kids anywhere, even with the backdrop of a Third World country and despair,” Lafferty said.
There was another thing he noticed that was not always evident in the ERs here in America.
“They really appreciate everything. There’s an appreciation they have that we don’t have here. With the smiles of the kids and parents, they gave more to us than we gave to them,” Lafferty said.
Working dual ER jobs at Shore Memorial and at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers, Fla., prepared Lafferty to treat just about any medical problem quickly and efficiently. He also did ER stints for 10 years earlier in his career in Philadelphia.
He saw his share of traumatic injuries, but nothing could quite prepare Lafferty for the week in Haiti.
“I’ve seen a lot of trauma, but not massive devastation all at once. This was like a three-year residency in one week,” he said.
One of the images he returned home with was that of a freshly dug mass grave that reportedly holds the bodies of 80,000 earthquake victims.
The Haitian government has said more than 150,000 have been buried in total.
But Lafferty’s concern was the living. Many were children.
“They were mostly traumatic orthopedic injuries — amputations, partial amputations, chest trauma, massive soft tissue trauma, severe infections and dehydration.”
Summit Church in Fort Myers has a long history of involvement in Haiti with the Mission of Hope, an organization started by American Brad Johnson about 20 miles north of Port-au-Prince.
The Mission of Hope now includes a medical clinic and orphanage with about 1,200 children. Many on the staff at Gulf Coast Medical are in the Summit Church congregation. About one-third of the weekly donations to the church go directly to Mission of Hope.
Lafferty is not a member of the congregation, but when the church asked for medical volunteers to go to Haiti, he jumped at the chance. They arrived to find the island nation in chaos.
Maggie Forbes, a nurse at Gulf Coast Medical, said at that point medical workers were being discouraged from going. That’s why their team of seven doctors and nurses was the first to arrive at the Haiti Community Hospital, flying in on a plane supplied by NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson.
“The American Hospital Association recommended medical people not go because of beheadings and shootings,” Forbes said. “I didn’t think twice. These people are in need. If there’s anything you can do from a medical standpoint, that’s what you want to do. We made it through and did some good. We saved some kids, and lost some.”
They first went to Mission of Hope planning to turn the medical clinic, called Centre de Sante, into a functioning hospital. When they heard about a vacant hospital in Port-au-Prince, they headed there instead, using a truck to move a plane full of medical supplies a group called Missionary Flight International had delivered in a 1930s-era DC-3.
They began by setting up a triage system at one of the few hospitals that had not crumbled, treating the youngest and most severely injured first. They divided those with open fractures and those with closed fractures.
The hospital was immediately swamped with people in need of medical attention.
Laffery said he was scared only when he woke up to a 5.9-magnitude aftershock Jan. 20 that some are calling a second earthquake. The initial quake was a 7.0 magnitude.
“I went to bed at the hospital at 4 a.m. and woke up at 6:03 a.m. It sounded like a locomotive train, and, like, in slow motion you see the floors and ceiling moving,” Lafferty said.
Forbes said the aftershock, with the concrete hospital shifting and moving, gave her an idea what the Haitians went through a week earlier.
The doctors had no ventilator so for 18 hours, they had fed oxygen into a baby’s lungs with a hand-bag. The person squeezing the bag was the only one who did not flee the hospital during the aftershock, Laffery said. Even amputees managed to get out.
The hospital quickly filled again, and the medical team continued on its pace of 50 surgeries every 24 hours.
Lafferty’s wife, Cathy, a photographer and trained nurse, stayed home with children Karli, 9, Koko, 7, and Kory, 2. She worried, especially when the big aftershock hit and it took hours to find out her husband was fine.
“Everybody says you’re crazy for letting him go, but I’m so proud. He’s a doctor and he helped these people,” Cathy Lafferty said.
She has followed the stories behind the pictures her husband brought home, such as the slave girl in the red-and-white paisley dress who at first claimed the earthquake killed her parents because she hoped to escape slavery and get to an orphanage.
Lafferty said what he did is minor compared with others who have been working in Haiti for years. Lafferty said one woman who runs an orphanage in an area not hit by the earthquake went to Port-au-Price to collect children and prevent them from becoming slaves.
“She’s saved countless kids’ lives. These are the real stories,” Lafferty said.
More than anything, Laffery and his wife now have a new appreciation for what they have.
“We seem very far away from this story because we’re in nice homes and are eating good food. This stuff is real. It’s changed the way me and my wife look at life,” Lafferty said.
As he left, he saw supplies and medical personnel flooding in. Lafferty said Haiti has its problems with corrupt political leaders and failing infrastructure, but he said the disaster has “put Haiti back on the map” and there is hope for its people. There must be when the smiles of its children can overcome the smell of death.
Contact Richard Degener:
How to help
Send money, not supplies, the American Red Cross says. The agency is focusing on providing food, water, shelter and medical care and is unable to sort and transport items such as clothes. Wakefern Food Corp., which owns ShopRite and PriceRite, has donated $250,000.
To donate money to the Red Cross’ Haiti relief effort:
- Call the local chapter headquarters in Pleasantville at 609-646-8330, or dial 800-REDCROSS.
- Visit accredcross.org on the Web.
- Text-message the word ‘Haiti’ to 90999 to charge a $10 gift to your cell phone bill.
- To donate blood, call 800-GIVE-LIFE or visit redcrossblood.org on the Web. The agency has facilities in Cape May Court House, Millville and Pleasantville.