Burn center gets Haiti's wounded

Three people severely injured in the earthquake are taken to UNC Hospitals.

Staff WriterJanuary 27, 2010 

— One man was fueling his car at a gas station. Another was at work at a chemical plant. A woman was frying food in an outdoor market. All were severely burned when the earth shook in Haiti two weeks ago, leaving them with gaping wounds that went without proper treatment until Tuesday.

Flown to North Carolina from the Navy's floating hospital off the shores of Port-au-Prince, the three earthquake victims were among dozens of burn casualties that are finally being airlifted out of the crumbled capital to specialized treatment centers in the United States.

The N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals, one of 14 in the Southeast and the largest between Florida and Maryland, got the call Monday that the three patients would soon head its way. A fourth patient was flown to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.

The UNC care team had no idea what to expect with wounds suffered so many days prior. They were shocked. The patients had suffered burns over 25 percent to 40 percent of their bodies, including arms, legs and torsos. Aggressive efforts had not been taken to clear off the singed flesh so that new tissue could grow back. Infection remains a worry.

"As burns are not treated or not covered, they can extend deeper and burrow further into the tissue," said Dr. Bruce A. Cairns, director of UNC-CH's burn center.

Cairns said one patient will have surgery today to begin the removal of dead tissue and the patching of skin with grafts. But it's a delicate process, he said, requiring an approach different from the team's typical interventions.

When victims were rushed to the burn center last year from the ConAgra explosion in Garner, for example, care began on site by trained emergency responders.

At the hospital, the best in burn technology whirred into action. Pain medications were amply given. Wounds got quick attention.

The Haiti victims had none of that. All three suffered circumstances the doctors are still trying to piece together. This much they know: One man, a 48-year-old whose car exploded at a gas station while he was refueling, was carried by his wife for 10 miles until she found help.

"It's very difficult, if not impossible, for us to comprehend," Cairns said.

Cairns said care is additionally complicated by language barriers, although one of the patients spoke enough English to rejoice at receiving treatment, calling the nursing staff angels of mercy, and asking God to bless them.

"We're working through interpreters to identify what we know about the patients and their families, and what their needs are," Cairns said. The wife of the man whose car exploded was transported with him to Chapel Hill, and a child of the 54-year-old woman who was cooking in the open market also accompanied her here.

Cairns said both family members were still wearing the same clothes they had on the day earthquake hit. And they were hungry.

Dr. Samuel W. Jones, one of the burn center specialists, said the treatment team has had an emotional response to treating the patients and their families after watching the devastation in Haiti from afar.

"Part of me has a job to do," Jones said, "and that can allow me to express emotion under different circumstances."

He said the best thing for him to do was to get to work.

sarah.avery@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4882

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