Grand Junction doctor made difficult choices in ravaged Haiti

Grand Junction Dr. Mercedes Cameron talks about her trip to Haiti.

Dr. Mercedes Cameron worked nearly a week in earthquake-shattered Haiti, patching together as best she could broken bones, treating festering wounds and doing her best to frustrate the determined stalk of death.

The reality is that the patients Cameron recalls most starkly are those whose grim circumstances she knew to a medical certainty would only grow worse, not better.

Still, she harbored hope.

Haitians, Cameron said “are tough people, tougher than we are.”

Cameron, a Grand Junction general practitioner, worked in Haiti all last week, roughly Saturday to Saturday, along with Jean Paradis, a Grand Junction nurse, and Kathleen “Corky” Terry, a Denver nurse, under the auspices of Heart to Heart International.

Despair came early to physicians and other health care professionals after they arrived to help people injured when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck a land of rickety homes and unsteady concrete buildings.

Had emergency medical teams been equipped with tetanus shots, hundreds of lives could have been saved, Cameron said.

She treated as best she could one woman with full-blown tetanus, but had no shot to give her, Cameron said.

The woman is almost certainly dead by now, Cameron said.

In circumstances such as the earthquake, physicians have to make quick and difficult decisions, such as the one she faced when treating another woman.

Not all patients could be sent on to the hospital, Cameron said. Those whose chance of recovery was slim — the old, people with other afflictions — didn’t get the white slips of paper with their names that got them admitted to the hospital.

One woman sought treatment for her cheek, which was sliced open so deeply that her teeth and jawbone could be seen from the wound. She also had two club feet and some obvious neurologic problems.

In her life, the woman obviously “got the short straw over and over and over and over again,” Cameron said. “So I dealt her another short straw.”

She treated her patients as best she could and told the woman with the lacerated cheek to return the next day for more, but she offered no hospital admission slip.

“You just have to make the best choices you can,” she said.

A sense of ingenuity did come in handy, Cameron said, such as the idea to use a Camelbak, a water-filled, backpack-like apparatus with a tube for hands-free sipping while running or biking.

Cameron’s Camelbak became the water supply and faucet for making medicinal mixtures for children, she said.

One morning, she was to travel to a mountainous area near the epicenter of the quake to visit an orphanage. Cameron was eating breakfast, a bowl of rice and milk, and “I couldn’t get the spoon into the bowl,” she said. “I thought I was really dizzy.”

She was, however, feeling the effect of an aftershock measuring 6.1 on the Richter Scale.

Cameron and her team set out for the orphanage by way of roads that featured sheer drop-off on either side.

When she arrived, Cameron focused on work, seeing only the patient in front of her.

At one point, though, “I looked up and saw 20 or so little brown faces with wide brown eyes watching my every move,” Cameron said. “You could see hope and faith in those faces. That’s when I finally got the answer to what I was doing there. They knew the rest of the world cared and that help was coming.

“That will be forever ingrained in my mind. It was a gift.”


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