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Adrian Walker

Unfinished business

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / January 30, 2010

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For Dr. Selwyn Rogers, there was a precise moment when the agony of Haiti crystallized.

The Brigham and Women’s trauma surgeon was working in a small hospital in St. Marc last week, mostly performing amputations on earthquake victims, when he noticed a pair of patients: an 84 year-old woman and a 2-year-old girl.

“That stark contrast was incredibly devastating,’ Rogers said yesterday. “But it was inspiring to see that, beyond all of the heartbreak and despair, the Haitian people were incredibly resilient and valued life beyond all else and still found ways to hold each other and cry and laugh despite all this.’’

Rogers, who’s 43, is the chief of burn, trauma, and critical care at Brigham. He is from St. Thomas, not far from Haiti, but hadn’t had direct contact with the nation until he joined a Partners in Health team that went there several days after the quake struck.

His work at the Brigham, performing trauma care every day, barely prepared him for the scene he was thrust into. He chose two words to describe it: austere and horrific.

He was part of a group of doctors and nurses from Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General Hospital. Not only had they not worked together, they didn’t even know each other. But they became an instant MASH unit, assigned to a Partners facility in St. Marc, about 60 miles from Port-au-Prince.

The hospital’s wards were, as Rogers put it, like none you can imagine, part hospital, part shelter.

In trauma care, practitioners refer to “the golden hour,’’ the critical need for care to begin in the first hour after injuries have occurred. That standard quickly went out the window in Haiti, where rescued victims arrived at the hospital, often by car or truck, days after their injuries.

In Haiti, Rogers learned a new expression “gen la vie la dan,’’ translated as, “the life has gone out of it.’’ That was how his patients described their crushed and infected limbs.

One of his favorite patients was 16-year-old Anya, whose father initially refused to allow doctors to amputate her right leg.

“It was a very difficult conversation, to see this beautiful girl wondering how she was going to live in Haiti with one leg, when life was hard enough with two,’’ he said. The day after her amputation, she discovered that her mother had lost both legs and was trying to reunite with her in Port-au-Prince.

Rogers returned home to big hugs from his wife and three sons. His 7-year-old told him that his school had raised $1,000 for Haitian relief.

He was surprised by the feelings that welled up. “My first response, waking up in my comfortable, suburban home was to wish I was back there,’’ he said.

He reached for a military analogy. “I was never in the military, and when I would hear stories of people who came back and wanted to go back on another tour, I would say, ‘Why would anyone want to go back?’ ’’

He understands now: It is a sense of unfinished business. He feels that way about Haiti. “This is like a war against disease and suffering,’’ he continued. “I feel a need to go back and help people and to go back with these people who became like a second family.’’

That “second family,’’ his fellow doctors and nurses, got together the day after they got back, just because they didn’t know anyone else who would understand what they had just experienced. By yesterday, they had gotten together every day since returning.

Rogers says he has some post-traumatic stress symptoms, but quickly adds that his hurt is nothing compared to the suffering of Haitians. He is humbled by their heart and endurance.

“It’s hard to describe the sacrifices, the losses people had,’’ he said. “But they still found a way to laugh and cry and pray and sing, just to get by every day. People can persevere despite overwhelming sadness and despair.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.