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Helping Haiti heal: Brookings Health System, nurse anesthetist organize relief efforts

Posted: Thursday, Mar 18th, 2010

Brookings Health System nurse anesthetist Steve Bunkers gives anesthesia in mid-February to a trauma patient in an operating room in Haiti. Bunkers spent a week in Haiti in mid-February helping with relief efforts.

"It's bad, bad, bad."

This is how Brookings Health System nurse anesthetist Steve Bunkers describes the conditions in Haiti as he helped with relief efforts in mid-February . He traveled to the country a month after an earthquake with a 7.0 magnitude struck on Jan. 12.

Bunkers says what is on TV pales in comparison to the actual conditions caused by the natural disaster. "Anything you see on the news doesn't compare to what you see and what you sense when you are there," he said. "It doesn't begin to capture the poverty, the destruction and the lack of good health care."

According to Reuters, the death toll from the quake could reach 300,000 people, with 250,000 houses destroyed and 1.5 million people living in tents in the capital of Port-au-Prince .

A Brookings Health System employee for more than 20 years, Bunkers spent a week in Haiti along with two doctors, another nurse anesthetist, an operating room nurse, a physical therapist and a physician's assistant. For roughly 11 hours a day, they treated orthopedic injuries and administer anesthesia.

The team, mostly from the Yankton area, only gave him two days notice, but when Bunker got the call, he knew it was something he had to do. "I said, 'OK, let's go.'"

He hopped on a plane and flew from Sioux Falls, to Chicago, to Philadelphia and ended in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, since no flights with the exception of military and relief aircraft were being allowed into Haiti.

Bunkers' team couldn't get on the road right away because of equipment delays. When they were ready to head west to the Haitian boarder eight hours away, a driver took them in a tiny van with eight totes full of equipment and their backpacks.

As they reached the border, Bunkers and his team became uneasy.

Tensions were growing amongst soldiers , aid workers and survivors as confusion as to who was in charge, and air traffic congestion and delays in aid distribution were making conditions worse.

"There were a lot of soldiers with guns," he said. "It was probably one of the most dangerous places you could be. People were arguing everywhere. It was nerve-wracking ."

Even though they had to pay two bribes to drivers to get them across the border, they weren't out of danger yet as road conditions were "atrocious ."

"You'd see a (United Nation) truck once in a while," he said. "I saw these in camouflage coming out of their Humvees, and as I got closer, I saw an American flag on their shoulder and thought, 'I am so glad to see you.'" Death now part of life

Bunkers said Port-au-Price had been cleaned up to the extent that you could drive through the streets. "It's like they had taken a big snowplow had just went down the middle of the streets so you could lay the stones back and you could get through," he said. He recalls seeing three- or fourstory buildings whose sides had been blown out turn into giant tombs. "You knew there were thousands of people buried under those."

The team finally arrived at Albert Schweitzer Hospital, located in the mountainous area of Deschapelles, Haiti, two hours from most of the destruction and a place where people were attempting to flee from the devastation.

Bunkers and his crew performed six procedures a day, treating small children to adults with crushed legs or arms. He said they did the best they could with only one set of equipment, which would have to be prepped before the next patient. A first round of doctors quickly fixed up as many victims as they could after the quake. Bunkers' crew did a lot of "redo and follow-up " work such as replacing broken pins, resetting casts and treating infections. Life changing

Although he would pay all of his own expenses for the mission, Bunkers says that it's a small investment that changed his life significantly.

"I walked out of (Haiti) a gentler man," he said. "You no longer want to worry about the little stuff that we worry about around here." And he said the natives' appreciation was priceless to him. "They had nothing else to turn to," he said. "They didn't understand you because of the language barrier, even though I had an interpreter. But they would smile, and you could tell for a moment they were a little happier."

When people find out about his journey, they say, "Well, that must have been interesting."

But interesting doesn't describe it.

He said the thing that he won't forget anytime soon is the stench of burning garbage, open sewers and death.

"We stayed in barracks that were clean and ate rice and beans," he said. "We didn't have a hot shower, but we had clean conditions."

Still, when he came back to the U.S., he flew into Texas and had to use the airport restroom. "You know what, it was so clean and it smelled so good, he said. "I just stood there for a while and said, 'This is so nice in here.'"

Bunkers arrived back in time to join the Brookings Health System's volunteer effort with Impact Lives. Teams of local individuals are raising money to buy food for the people of Haiti. It will packed at the Larson Ice Arena on Saturday, March 27. Recruited volunteers

Kandace Hartneck, Brookings Health System's foundation development officer, recruited volunteers from staff and said the interest was so great that some people had to be turned away. "Brookings Health System Foundation is proud to be part of what makes this community so great people getting together for the betterment of future generations, both in this region and beyond," said Hartneck.

When asked why people should open their hearts and pocketbooks to help, Bunkers said, "That's what America is built on. That's what we do," he said. "It's been our philosophy forever. We help a lot of people here, too."

Bunkers said although people have been generous initially, the nation is going to hurt for years to come. "Don't stop helping Haiti, because this is not a short-term thing," he said. "This is going to be a long haul. Anybody can do a little good down there. You don't have to do what I did."

"Sometimes I'd feel like a grain of sand," said Bunkers, "but if you have enough grains of sand, then you've got a beach."

Contact Vicki Schuster at vschuster@brookingsregister.com

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