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February 03, 2010

Leila Hepp knew her previous experience working in the Third World would pay off as a volunteer in Haiti.

The third-year student in MGH Institute's Master of Science in Nursing program had just arrived at a makeshift hospital a few miles outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince. It was six days after the January 12 earthquake that had ruined the Caribbean country.

"I'd seen serious medical conditions in Yemen and Kenya before this, so I felt more prepared than others working in a post-disaster area," said Hepp, who was part of a team with the Christian charitable organization Operation Double Harvest who was sent down by Partners In Health.

Leila kept a moving journal of her experiences in Haiti.

Medical supplies were sparse, and organization even less so in those early days of the relief effort. But she and the other volunteers immediately began to triage patients while creating a system to put some order in a chaotic situation.

"There were literally hundreds of patients who had not yet been treated, and so many of them already were septic because infection had spread through their body we knew a lot of them would die before we could treat them," Hepp, who plans to graduate from MGH Institute this spring and become a nurse practitioner, recalled.

Working 18-20 hour days, she saw hundreds of patients have their limbs cut off in an effort to save their lives working in battle-like conditions. It wasn't unusual for a patient with a crushed toe - a relatively minor situation under normal circumstances - to have the entire foot cut off in order to save the patient's life because a week had gone by and infection had set in.

"Some people worked two or three days straight when they first got there, and they burned out pretty quickly," recalled Hepp. "I realized I wouldn't be any good if I did that so I paced myself just enough that I could still be effective."

After a few grueling days, she went on an overnight trip to a village to recharge her batteries. On the way back to the hospital she hooked a ride on a truck that was carrying 2,000 pounds of rice to the countryside that was experiencing extreme food shortages. Driving through the capital city, she saw none of the chaos that had been televised back to the developed world.

"All the buildings had collapsed, and most people were sleeping outside, but even though many of them were still injured and had lost family members, they would line up in the morning and wait all day to be treated," Hepp, who has returned to her studies at the Boston health sciences graduate school, recounted. "Eventually we saw them all."

For Hepp, who will graduate in May, it has been an eye-opening experience. "It has forever changed the way I look at how health care is delivered throughout the world."

 Other Dispatches from Haiti.

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