Doctor saw Haiti's agony first-hand

Klimach helped as much as he could in brief stay

WALTER KLIMACH/Courtesy
Almost all of the buildings in Haiti are built of concrete, said retired Kingman doctor Walter Klimach. Many of the columns that support the upper stories of the buildings were not strong enough to support their concrete roofs when the earth began to shake.

WALTER KLIMACH/Courtesy Almost all of the buildings in Haiti are built of concrete, said retired Kingman doctor Walter Klimach. Many of the columns that support the upper stories of the buildings were not strong enough to support their concrete roofs when the earth began to shake.

KINGMAN - A local doctor is home from Haiti - and he wants to go back.

Walter Klimach, a retired Kingman urologist, left Jan. 27 with a group of 22 volunteers from Haitian Disaster Relief of Arizona to help the earthquake victims. He returned to Kingman Thursday morning.

Klimach described the scene in Haiti, nearly three weeks after the earthquake, as chaotic disorganization.

He spent most of his visit tending to patients in a tent set up by a group sponsored by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Many days the temperature inside the tent reached nearly 110 degrees.

There was very little organization of medical supplies, patients or doctors at his location at Hospital de Diquini near a university, he said. They had most of what they needed to treat patients, but it was all mixed together. Doctors had to rummage through boxes of drugs and medical supplies to find what they needed to treat patients.

His first morning on the job in Port-au-Prince had him, Haitian-American doctor Pierre Jilles from Phoenix and former Navy Emergency Medical Technician John Rineer clear out a building in order to set up a clinic. They had to scavenge for cots and other materials for patients to lie on.

Kilmach said he worked with a wonderful team. The Jilles, Rineer and the nurses that came with them were able to deal with just about any situation. Rineer was especially good at scavenging supplies.

Aid organizations from different countries traded medical supplies with each other in order to get what they didn't have or items they were running low on.

On a trip back from Leogane, a town near the epicenter of the quake, Klimach traded medical supplies with a young woman from another organization for several bottles of antibiotics, he said.

The 20-year-old woman - Klimach couldn't remember her name - was taking care of several young boys whose parents had been killed when the earthquake collapsed the church where they were holding a Bible study class.

Signs of the destructive power of the earthquake were everywhere, he said. He estimated that 80 percent of the buildings he saw in Port-au-Prince were damaged, and nearly 90 percent of them were destroyed in Leogane.

The island is rich in the necessary minerals and materials to make concrete, Klimach said. Therefore, almost all of the buildings are made completely out of cement and rebar from the roofs to the floors.

The problem is that some of the support columns for the upper floors of the homes and buildings could not hold the weight of the concrete roofs when the earth began to sway, he said. He saw numerous examples of earthquake damage where the upper stories of a building had collapsed but the first floor was still standing.

The bodies of the dead were stacked with tires and other debris inside what remained of some of these buildings, then the whole pile was set on fire because there wasn't enough equipment to dig mass graves, Klimach was told by one of the other volunteers. The stench was everywhere, he said.

The people of Haiti have been so traumatized by the earthquake that most of them won't even walk into a building to receive treatment, Klimach said. They have dragged everything they can salvage out of their homes and put up tents and other temporary shelters wherever there is open space. At least 30,000 refugees had taken up residence in tents surrounding the hospital, he said.

The only exception that he saw to this was an older woman who had taken up residence inside the library of the nearby university, he said.

Most frustrating of all was the lack of organization as to which patients were seen first. Instead of organizing patients so that the most seriously ill would be seen first, the doctors were sent whomever was next in line, he said.

"They (the Haitians) would start to line up in the morning as soon as they saw someone in scrubs walking toward the tent," Klimach said. Within five minutes of him starting work in the morning, 100 people would be standing outside the tent; after five more minutes, another hundred would joined them. The crowd would continue to grow until the tent was closed for the night, he said.

Klimach saw very few injuries directly related to the earthquake. The group had arrived nearly two weeks after the earthquake and most of the work they were doing was follow-up care to the earthquake injuries or treating chronic diseases such as the common cold, abdominal pain, delivering babies, etc.

If his group had arrived a week earlier, they may have been treating more of the earthquake-related injuries, he said.

The people in Haiti already were in desperate need of healthcare before the earthquake, he said.

One day, Klimach was able to get a sort of patient organization system going, but the system didn't last long. Another day, a group of doctors didn't show up at 9 a.m. to help him and he found himself faced with more than 100 patients waiting for care. He was able to continue to treat patients until about 1 p.m. when another doctor finally showed up.

The care that each patient got was the best the doctors could provide with the materials they had, he said. There was only one X-ray machine at the hospital adjacent to where he worked. There were no CAT scan or MRI machines, not even a basic lab to do blood tests.

He set the fractured lower leg of one woman in Leogane on the hood of a car.

The chaos extended beyond the medical side of things and into the streets. Toward the end of his stay, Klimach saw a fight nearly break out when an aid group tried to deliver a truck of bottled water.

"People were shouting, 'give me, give me,' yelling and pushing," he said. They had enough water. A water treatment station had been set up a few blocks away. They wanted the water because it was bottled and they could sell it, Klimach said.

The corruption in Haiti isn't just limited to the government, he said. It permeates through every level of society there, except the poorest of the poor who have no one below them.

Haiti really has a chance at a good future, Klimach said. He met a number of young people who were offering their services as interpreters to foreigners at the hospital, many of them were very bright. They could, if they had the education, turn the country around, he said. But he fears that once the aid organizations have left, things will return to the normal, corrupt way of life.

"Handouts are OK initially after a disaster like this, but people become dependent on them. They need to start their own economy," he said. "They have the potential. They need to help themselves. The Haitians need to take care of the Haitians."

Klimach wants to return to Haiti after all the aid organizations have left and the world has forgotten the earthquake. He wants to try and help the county get back on its feet and headed in the right direction.