Feb. 12, 2010 update - Patients from Haiti earthquake at UNC Hospitals

Friday, Feb. 12, 2010

A month ago, none of them could have imagined the way the ground would give way beneath their feet, and bring their lives crashing down around them, in as much a literal sense as a figurative one. But, on Jan. 12, 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, it did.

And now, exactly one month later, Jinel Masena, Marie Thomas and Eriek Louis sit in the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, in a hospital they’d never heard of, in a country they didn’t think they’d be visiting.

The patients have been at UNC since Jan. 26. They were transported from Haiti on the USNS Comfort, and then flown from Miami to North Carolina. Their stories are wrenching. Masena, 23, was at his workplace, Haiti Metal, when the earthquake hit.

The shaking ground unearthed a vat of chemicals. While the acid poured down on his arms and legs, all Masena remembers is trying to hold his head up, so the acid wouldn’t cover his face.  Despite his burns, Masena was able to get out of the half-collapsed building and into the parking lot. Seeing his burns, a stranger put Masena over his shoulders and helped him to a hospital nearby. “No one there took care of me. No one did anything,” he said. Finally, Americans came to take him to the Comfort, he said.

Since his arrival, doctors have grafted skin to Masena’s arms and legs. The grafting operation was successful, and Masena is now in the therapy phase, said Samuel Jones, M.D., who is overseeing Masena’s care. Occupational and physical therapists work with him every day, and he is only a week or two away from recovery from physical wounds.

Thomas, who underwent a similar operation with skin grafted mostly to her legs, is on just about the same recovery timeline. “I’m really pleased with their progress,” said Jones. “They are walking, eating, drinking, working well with the therapists. That’s what you want to see at this point."

Thomas, who is 57, was at her home when the earthquake hit. She heard a cracking noise and tried to run out of her house. In the street she got pushed down and everything went dark.

“The whole country went dark for maybe three seconds,” Thomas recalls. “I didn’t know if I was dead or alive. When I came to, I saw all the buildings were collapsed. Another house had collapsed onto my house. I lost everything I had. There were dead people all around me.”

Hot oil from a food cart had spilled on Thomas, who realized it only when she heard her skin crackling. At the hospital, no one could help her. Her family helped her find foreign doctors who washed her wounds and sent her away, telling her they couldn’t do anything else for her. Thomas didn’t have a home to return to. She was huddled in a park with other displaced families when she heard a loudspeaker announce that people were getting treatment at a stadium. Someone there told her she was being sent to a ship from the U.S., that she could get treated there.

Louis’ burns are the most severe. His head is wrapped in bandages, and so are his hands and arms. His face is burned, but his eyes are wide and alert. Louis (pronounced in the French LOU-ee) was on the bus home from work when the ground started shaking. The gas station they were passing blew up and set the bus, and Louis inside, on fire. “The blood of Jesus, the blood of Jesus,” over and over the line went through his head. “I had to climb over a dead body to get out. It was so painful, but I had to do it.” At the hospital, much like Masena and Thomas, he found no relief. “There were no doctors. There were no nurses. Everyone was dying,” he said.

Louis may have, too, if it wasn’t for his wife, Yvita. She is a petite woman, not much more than five feet tall, and just shy of 100 pounds. But she carried her husband 10 miles home that day. And then she cared for him, with no help, for six days. She poured water down his throat. She boiled leaves and used them to wash his swollen face. She cut off the burned skin hanging from his body with scissors.

“My first love is for God,” said Louis. “But my second is for my wife. She has done so much for me.” Louis was taken to a hospital in the Dominican Republic before he was transferred to the Navy ship.

Louis has already undergone two operations called staging procedures. Staging procedures are used on patients who are not ready for grafts of their own skin. Cadaver and pig skin are used to cover the wounds temporarily. “Staging helps before your own skin will take to the wounded sites,” said Jones.

Louis has several months of treatment and recovery ahead of him, but he is happy with the progress he’s made in such a short time and the care he’s received. “When we got here, I finally felt like we were in good hands,” said Yvita Louis. “I felt like this was where we were supposed to be.”

Knowing what they have been through, you might think they would be crying, but they are laughing. You might expect to see sadness in their eyes, but there is joy. You might think they would despair, but they are hopeful.  There’s a saying  among burn patients, because their injuries are typically so traumatic, people once burned are not victims, they’re survivors.

Unlike even most burn survivors, Louis, Thomas and Masena have greater emotional and psychological wounds. But their resilience, their faith brought them this far out of a ravaged country, and as their physical scars begin to heal, their faith will surely heal the ones in their hearts and in their minds.


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