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Air Force EMEDS provides care, compassion to people of Haiti

  • Published
  • By Capt. Nathan D. Broshear and 1st Lt Cody Chiles
  • 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) Public Affairs
A cement truck rumbles by a group of uniformed Airmen, kicking up a cloud of dust. Unfazed, the group reaches into a waiting van and begins to walk a stretcher towards a group of light-brown tents. It's only 11:30 a.m., but the team has already done this exercise half a dozen times in the sweltering heat. As soon as the man is inside, nurses, technicians, Airmen and Sailors acting as translators swarm the bed and begin to work.

It's a typical morning at the 24th Expeditionary Medical Support facility, located between the massive "Cite de Soliel" slum, a destroyed port, an active cement factory and a shattered prison on the outskirts of town. Despite the harsh conditions, the team is finding inspiration from the people they've been charged to treat -- the sick and injured found among the rubble of the Jan. 12th earthquake.

"This site is located on top of a landfill....but the ground is solid and we can land helicopters here from our sister services," says Col. John Mansfield, 24th EMEDS commander as he looks over the overgrown field which passes for a helipad. "We just got showers and proper tents yesterday (after more than two weeks in country)...we were working in the EMEDS facility during the day and sleeping under open tents at night -- but I haven't heard one complaint....there are people a lot worse off...these Airmen truly believe in this mission."

The 87 Air Force medical Airmen, primarily from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., are staffing the 24th EMEDS team's 20-bed hospital with a wide range of skill sets; gynecology, urology, pediatrics, general surgery, orthopedic surgery, family practice, and nursing. In addition, 79 Navy Sailors are on site providing security and communication support for the facility. They've only been operational for three days, and already they've performed more than 7 surgeries and provided life-saving care to 78 Haitian citizens.

"Yesterday a missionary group went into a nearby slum and brought a truck full of people here that needed help...most were malnourished toddlers," explains Mansfield. "In addition to patients from the city, we're also taking patients from the USNS Comfort docked off shore."

Visitors to the facility might find themselves impromptu medical assistants. "Sunday night we heard gunshots near the compound while the AFSOUTH first sergeant was visiting. A Coast Guard boat pulled up to the beach, then the 'shirt' became ambulance driver with our team as we took in a Haitian man with four gunshot wounds to the hip and leg," explains the Colonel.

"We were able to stop the bleeding and hooked him up to an IV and then the Navy came to take him to the USNS Comfort," adds Colonel Mansfield. "The military branches are working together to save lives every day."

Second Lt. Patrick Mudimbi, a bio-environmental engineer based at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., is acting as a translator at the EMEDS facility. He's originally from Congo, a French-speaking African nation, where he spent the first 23 years of his life prior to joining the Air Force. "I learned English at basic training," he jokes. This deployment has put his language skills, and his heart, to the test.

Lieutenant Mudimbi works every day as long as his body will allow him, "I can't take a break, I can't sleep....these patients need I work until I am too tired, then start again." While he talks, the lieutenant is busy making "juice" and cocoa from Meals Ready to Eat packages and heating entrees for patients.

In the morning, Lieutenant Mudimbi is invited to pray with a patient who lost his leg. Soon, the whole ward is praying together. "These small miracles happen every day," he says as he holds the hand of a woman burned across more than 70 percent of her body.

"I was most amazed with the strength of the Haitian people we bring here," said the lieutenant. "When we change dressings or administer a particularly painful procedure, many times these brave patients will not cry out in pain -- they will sing." Over the drum of the air conditioners, the burned woman's tiny voice carries across the room....he smiles at her...then continues.

Dr. Alexis Guyto, a Haitian doctor working alongside the Air Force medics is monitoring ongoing care for patients after they depart the EMEDS facility. Patients are then tracked by the Haitian medical association to ensure their case history is not lost. "(via translator) We support the USNS Comfort and the Air Force EMEDS hospital by directing patients who are discharged to hospitals where they can receive follow-up care," he explains.

The Haitian doctor was trained in a facility built by the U.S. military and feels these types of improvements are needed to help the country get back to normal. "We appreciate the medical schools and projects the military put in place; these are very much needed and have good long-term impact for the people of Haiti."

During the day, family members of patients come to sit in the ward, waiting for the moment Airmen will have to tell them their loved one must leave. Although they've known these visitors only a few days, they're greeted as long-lost friends, exchanging hugs and warm smiles.

A woman gives her son a cell phone to break the news to his friends; he's lost his right leg, but he's alive. After the call, the family shares their phone, snacks and encouragement with the other patients in the tent. Airmen prepare MREs for everyone, eating alongside their charges. Despite having little left, there's no hoarding kindness...each person gives all they have.

The day will come when Lieutenant Mudimbi will translate his final message to each patient as they leave the EMEDS care. Their brief time together has changed them both. "We cry together, we struggle against pain together, we laugh together....I will remember every one of these patients," he says as he gathers another round of MRE juice.

"There is a difference between providing care and compassion -- we provide both of them," he says. "We are healing these patients on the outside, and I feel we are also healing them on the inside....they become like family to us."

The EMEDS team featured here is scheduled to be in Haiti for the next 120 days.