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'U' surgeon reflects on mission to Haiti

BY CHELSEA LANGE
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 1, 2010

For Kaz Soong, an ophthalmologist at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center, the recent earthquake in Haiti affected him on a personal level.

Soong had visited Haiti twice before, where he made close friends and fell in love with the culture. For those reasons Soong knew he had to go back to help the victims of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the country on Jan. 12.

“I had to go,” Soong said in an interview yesterday. “I had to go, to look for my friends and also to help out with the carnage down there. And time was ticking very, very fast.”

On Friday, Jan. 22, Soong flew to Miami in hopes of going to Haiti with a team from the University of Miami, even though he had no definite plans yet. After one cancelled flight, Soong continued to call everyone he could to try to get down to the country as soon as possible. On Saturday, Jan. 23, Soong got a call telling him to be at the airport in one hour.

Once he was on the plane heading towards Haiti, Soong and his crew members were told that if they did not land by 1:30 p.m., the military air traffic controls would direct them back to Miami.

“We circled many times over Port-au-Prince. It was 1:29 and our hope was starting to fade, and then we felt the landing gear go down and the airplane slowed down. And we were going in, we made it in,” Soong said, explaining that the abundance of planes trying to land caused delays on the runway.

While the plane ride was a journey in itself, Soong said it was on the ground in Port-au-Prince where the real experience began.

The University of Miami four-tent field hospital that Soong worked at in Port-au-Prince was located next to the Port-au-Prince airport — where there was always air traffic coming in and out of the airport, even throughout the night, Soong said.

The procedures that were conducted at the field hospital were mainly orthopedic. And while Soong specializes in ophthalmology, he helped with surgeries, amputations and whatever else he could.

“I did radiology, putting casts on, reducing fractures, amputations, taking bed pans out, sweeping the floor,” Soong said. “There is absolutely no space for egos or not wanting to do anything. It was just so crazy you had to help out.”

Soong said shortages in medical equipment led volunteers to improvise. A flashlight was used as light during operations and a hypodermic needle was wrapped around a broken pair of microscopic goggles to hold them together.

Even toothpaste served another purpose for the people in Port-au-Prince.

“Interestingly, when I was down there I saw people with white toothpaste on their upper lip,” Soong said. “Toothpaste was a very popular commodity because the mint in it took care of the stench of the corpses. It was everywhere.”

Soong said crime also hindered doctors’ ability to provide necessary help.

“Things were really scant and people were coming in and stealing medical supplies, and the local prison had broken down so all of the violent characters escaped,” he said. “They were out in the street, and there were a lot of gangs.”

The situation was so bad that Soong said the scene at the field hospital was like a war zone. He added that doctors employed a triage system, often being forced to treat those with “medium injuries” before those with less severe injuries because they had a better chance of saving them than those with more serious injuries.

“That’s the triage system,” Soong said. “Just like in civil war. And it was very much like civil war.”

Though it was difficult to deal with most of what he saw in Haiti, Soong said some stories from the trip did have happy endings. When a baby was born at the field hospital, Soong said all the surgeons took a short break from their surgeries and applauded the happy moment.

“The other surgeons at the other areas stopped their surgeries for about two minutes and they clapped,” Soong said. “Everybody was just yelling and then back to the heavy stuff again, so, ups and downs. Within a minute or two, you have ups and downs of emotion.”

The field hospital was in an area that consisted of many other field hospitals, from countries all around the world — including China, Korea, Portugal, Peru, Czech Republic, Qatar and Israel.

“There’s a lot of hugging”, Soong said. “They will come up to us medical guys saying ‘bless you’ and we’ll hug them, like a hug-fest. It was like you could see how good humanity can be when there is a need.”

Soong arrived back in Ann Arbor last week, but he said his experiences in Haiti still remain fresh in his mind, and that he hopes to return to Haiti as early as March.