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Area native returns from mission

  • DR PAUL VANEK/ SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS A young Haitian girl with head injuries holds on to her little pink Teddy bear as she awaits surgery at a hospital in Port-au-Prince.
    DR PAUL VANEK/ SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS A young Haitian girl with head injuries holds on to her little pink Teddy bear as she awaits surgery at a hospital in Port-au-Prince.
Published January 29. 2010 05:00PM

When Dr. Paul Vanek saw the earliest earthquake images on his TV screen, he cringed.

What he saw on CNN was a Haitian family using a power saw to cut off the leg of their trapped daughter in order to pull her from rubble.

"The girl died. She lost too much blood. The body only has so much blood in it," explained Vanek, a plastic surgeon. That image was seared in Vanek's mind and his response was to jump to action.

He canvassed the community for medical supplies, supplemented those donations by $17,000 in antibiotics and other medicine which he paid for out of pocket and then flew to ravaged Haiti within a matter of days.

He returned over a week later a changed man.

"It was a life-changing experience for me. I've never been in anything like that. The words don't even come to me to describe it," said Vanek, 46.

Vanek has worked in trauma in the past and, at one time, rode with the Tuscarora ambulance in his hometown. But, he said, nothing can prepare a person for the type of medical emergencies still arising from Haiti's massive earthquake.

"They came in with crushed heads, crushed faces," he said, fighting back tears. "I did leg amputations, arm amputations and fasciotomies ... to incise the skin to find if there is gangrenous muscle." That same procedure was used around the eyes, too, he said, to release pressure that had built up from facial injuries.

Vanek, who arrived home in Mentor, Ohio, late Tuesday told the TIMES NEWS that he performed non-stop surgery and other duties inside a damaged Port-au-Prince medical center for a period of a week.

Facilities lacked equipment

Vanek described conditions in Haiti as extremely dire. He said he was rushed into service the minute his jet landed at Port-au-Prince airport.

"We went from the tarmac and took a bus to Project Medishare, then were led to a tent where we started triaging patients."

Vanek said four makeshift operating rooms were set up inside the tent, with each room divided "by a plastic bag hanging from a rope. Operating room tables were just benches or whatever was available."

Since that facility seemed fairly well-staffed, Vanek, his traveling partner, Dr. Jack Fitzgerald, and two nursing supervisors, consulted with a Lt. Col. Wilson, then jumped into a U.N. vehicle and went to a community medical center in the city.

"We had a Syrian driver and a local guide who was an interpreter," Vanek said.

Vanek's crew arrived at the damaged hospital and set up an operating room at a location where the building had split open during the quake.

"It was the on the second floor. We had it set up in about two hours," he said.

Fifty nurses at that hospital perished during the quake, along with administrators. Others who had worked there were afraid to re-enter the building.

Still, it served a purpose for Vanek and his team, although there was a serious lack of equipment.

"There was no anesthesia machine and no oxygen for three days," he said.

As a result, his team applied anesthesia without the benefit of the machine. He said the pace was fast and there was a constant barrage of information.

"There was no central command or control. At that stage it's just relationships," he said.

On his first day on the job, Vanek and team operated until 3 a.m. He got little time to rest and only had the opportunity to take a shower just a few times in the eight days he was there.

Intensive care, endless duties

Vanek and his crew worked from morning to night every day.

The emotional struggles involved with emergency surgery were very difficult.

How do you prepare a youngster to lose a limb?

"You hold their hand," he said. "You tell them you love them, and that you're going to try to save their life."

Vanek paused. For a time he couldn't speak. The emotions are still raw.

"It's very intense," he said. "No matter how much I did, there was more to do."

Duties weren't limited to medicine.

In addition to being the surgical and medical staff, Vanek and crew also doubled as maintenance workers.

"I mopped floors. I carried patients. There were no egos. You did what had to be done," said Vanek, a 1981 graduate of Tamaqua Area High School.

There was no formal mealtime. Vanek's crew ate just enough to get by, to keep up their strength for the following day.

"We ate power bars and MREs in the evening," he said.

Vanek has flashback moments which move him to tears. The images he's witnessed in Haiti are unlike anything else he's ever seen.

"But I have a sense of calm," he said. "I'm at peace with how we did it because we did the best we could."

Vanek flew into Michigan on Tuesday night with a sense of relief.

"I kissed the ground. I was so happy to be in America," he said.

He credits the support of his family. His daughter Megan, 18, donated all of her Christmas money $630 to help the effort. Daughters Erin, 16, Elizabeth, 13, and wife Kristine also pitched in. The entire family helped to pack and load aid boxes and medical supplies. Vanek also credits Amway Corporation for flying him home.

He says the number one need in Haiti right now is medical personnel.

"They need doctors and nurses. People are needed there right now. They're dying there right now because there's no one there taking care of them," he explained.

How did the experience change him?

Vanek says it gave him a whole new perspective.

"The things I used to worry about ... I don't worry anymore."

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