Haiti: One Year After the Earthquake

Not Much Has Changed, Says Surgeon Melvin Rosenwasser
January 17, 2011
Melvin Rosenwasser, in blue, at a patient's bedside during a trip to Haiti in November, 2010


After a devastating earthquake hit Haiti on Jan 11, 2010, many students, physicians and alumni of the College of Physicians and Surgeons traveled to the country to help fix broken bones and repair lives.

Several have returned to Haiti in recent weeks, including Melvin Rosenwasser, MD’76, the Robert E. Carroll Professor of Orthopedic Surgery and director of the Orthopedic Hand and Trauma Service at Columbia University Medical Center, who visited last November to help people still disabled from the quake and those with new injuries.

What were your impressions of Haiti during your trip in November?

The amazing thing to me was nothing seems to have changed. All the buildings look the same as after the earthquake. There doesn’t appear to be a government or any purposeful reconstruction. The social order is maintained by UN police. There are tent cities and garbage everywhere. The ditches are filled with Styrofoam leftover from all the emergency meals. One of the hospitals destroyed in the earthquake still has bodies of patients and doctors inside.

I was amazed at some of the violence. There are gangs operating in Port-au-Prince taking a lot of expatriates as hostages for ransom. We weren’t allowed to walk around anywhere without our escorts. It’s a pretty desperate situation.

Patients waiting for surgery

Yet the people are very resilient. They’re somewhat resigned due to the conditions they’ve endured for some time, but they’re not angry with others for their plight.

Is the medical system faring any better?

The medical system is still in shambles and still surviving on NGOs. Most of the doctors and nurses in Haiti come from other countries and work for the NGOs. There’s a tent hospital out by the airport that’s trying to fill some of the gaps.

But the medical schools are not functioning, and the medical students are still on a strike that started before the earthquake. Many Haitian surgeons are now in the U.S., so there’s probably only a handful of orthopedic surgeons for a country of 9 million people.

Did you see any of your patients from your first trip?

We didn’t, but we had heard everyone had done well.

In November we dealt with a different population that needed prosthetic replacements, or had injuries that didn’t heal or didn’t heal properly. Many of these cases were quite difficult. We saw people who were still lying in bed from hip fractures sustained in the earthquake. The breaks had never healed, and now they need complex implants and grafts. We can help with those and we did.

But some injuries were so devastating that it was impossible to help. Some required entire joint replacements, and in Haiti, not only are implants not available, we don’t have absolutely sterile ORs that we need for such procedures.

Do you have plans to return?


Rehab Medicine Team Witnesses Changing Attitudes Toward Disability in Haiti

published April 27, 2010

Civil-Military Collaboration in the Initial Medical Response to the Earthquake in Haiti

New England Journal of Medicine, March 11, 2010

P&S Alumni Help in Earthquake-Torn Country

P&S Journal, Winter/Spring 2010

Yes. The group I’m working with, Foundation for Orthopedic Trauma, is trying to set up a permanent base there to receive donated equipment from companies and provide a place for visiting surgeons to operate. To do major surgery to restore limbs, you need equipment. Surgeons can’t just jump off a plane and start helping people.

The real issue is how to provide healthcare to 9 million people day-to-day. People get hit by cars or fall off ladders, and there’s no one there to take care of them. That will take a massive effort.


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