Haiti relief: Surgeon's mission takes moving turn

By Erin Prather Stafford / Holidays 2010

Like many people in the U.S., Dr. Karl Rathjen watched in horror last January when a catastrophic earthquake reduced to rubble much of Haiti. Dr. Rathjen, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, knew that thousands had been injured in the disaster.

Shortly after the first news broadcasts, Dr. Rathjen, who also is director of orthopaedics at Children’s Medical Center Dallas and an orthopaedist at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, contacted Dr. Scott Nelson, medical director of CURE International’s hospital in the Dominican Republic.

Dr. Karl Rathjen was happy to be reconnected with a young patient.

A nonprofit organization, CURE provides medical care to children with physical disabilities in developing countries. Dr. Nelson, already on site in Haiti to provide care, requested Dr. Rathjen’s assistance. Dr. Rathjen quickly boarded a plane to Port-au-Prince for his first disaster relief mission.

His first night in country bore near-silent witness to the overwhelming task at hand.

“Our group split to different hospitals when we got on the ground,” said Dr. Rathjen, a UT Southwestern faculty member since 1996. “I was with a group that went to the Haitian Community Hospital.”

While walking the hallways, Dr. Rathjen saw 200 to 300 patients camped outside. Hundreds more rested on the grounds of the hospital.

It struck Dr. Rathjen as the quietest hospital he’d ever been in.

“If patients were lucky, they had a piece of cardboard to lie on,” he said. “There was no food or water, few IVs and no pain medicine. Yet they waited for help and care with such graciousness; it was incredibly humbling to witness.

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“In the beginning we were doing amputations to save lives. As the week progressed we treated femur fractures. We treated patients of all ages and soon were addressing infections and other long-bone fractures.”

Dr. Rathjen and his team often spent early mornings organizing patients. While the triage areas could be chaotic, the operating room environment was quiet – not much different from one in Texas.

One patient he recalled was a young girl who had a seriously infected leg. On his second night in Haiti, Dr. Rathjen heard an unmistakable wail of grief and instinctively knew whose mother was crying.

“It had been decided that her leg needed to be amputated,” he said. “I found a translator, sat down with them both and told the woman the same thing I’d tell a Dallas mother. ‘It’s not toes that make your daughter beautiful; it’s her heart, mind and smile. She’ll still be able to run and jump and play.’ The mother looked at me and said three words that needed no translation: ‘What about prosthesis?’ That was a hard question to hear because at that time I had no idea how she would get a prosthesis.”

After returning to the U.S., Dr. Rathjen received an e-mail saying a CURE group would be traveling to Haiti with prosthetics. He hoped the child  would be a recipient. In November he went back to the devastated country and found the little girl, who had indeed been fitted with a new leg.

“Two days after my conversation with her mother, she left the hospital on crutches with the biggest smile on her face,” he said. “In a sense she became a focal point for our group, the one we will always remember. From such sadness to such contentment, the spirit of a child is an amazing thing. ”