Paul McMaster: Equipment needed to save lives was here – then sent away

The supplies are now being moved by truck. It's causing huge delays and we're in a race against time

Thursday 21 January 2010 01:00

The hacksaw my colleagues have been using for amputations in the absence of any surgical equipment is broken. One of their most urgent tasks yesterday was to track down a replacement at the market. There were 12 people depending on the success of this mission, 12 people who will die if we cannot remove their gangrenous limbs.

Many of the patients Médecins Sans Frontières is treating have been pulled from the rubble of the collapsed buildings. There is not only the risk of septicaemia, but also "crush syndrome", which is where damaged muscles release toxins into the blood, potentially causing kidney failure. We desperately need dialysis machines to keep these patients alive.

It is unspeakably frustrating to think there were two of them on the cargo plane, which has been turned back from Port-au-Prince airstrip three times in as many days, most recently on Tuesday night. Five patients in another MSF health centre have already died because we don't have the medical supplies that we need.

I've never seen the kind of devastation I'm seeing in Haiti, despite having flown in to many emergencies. We're seeing the kind of daily casualty numbers you expect to see in a war. In some areas the city is absolutely destroyed. And it's always the most vulnerable who suffer most. Whenever I leave our makeshift clinic, I see so many people begging for surgery, for even the most basic medical help.

The almost incomprehensible scale of the destruction makes it all the more unacceptable that medical supplies are not getting through. MSF teams were treating patients within half an hour of the quake last Tuesday. We have managed to get some electricity working, and water, and we have treated more than 3,000 people in the Haitian capital and performed more than 400 surgeries. But we need more supplies if we are to continue saving lives here, and bringing them in has been incredibly difficult.

Since last Thursday, MSF has had five planes diverted from Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic. The planes carried a total of 85 tonnes of indispensable medical and relief supplies. Now those supplies are being moved by truck. Some trucks have arrived, others are still making their way along the only viable route. It's causing huge delays and we're in a race against time.

MSF has successfully landed another five planes with a total of 135 tonnes of supplies at Port-au-Prince. But that is only a drop in the ocean. To give you some idea, we estimate we need at least another 195 tonnes if we want to continue to scale up our medical relief here. Deprived of these urgent medical supplies, doctors are having to be ever more resourceful in saving Haitian lives. We ran out of histamine drugs for anaesthetics at the weekend, twice we have run out of plaster of Paris to fix fractures. And at the moment, we don't even have a simple thing like crêpe bandages. Our logistics team are working very, very hard, but it's just a nightmare.

The writer is a British surgeon working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Port-au-Prince

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