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Mission trip sends local physician to hospital in Haiti's north

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Dr. Kevin Unger performs laser surgery on a Haitian patient with equipment shipped from the United States. Unger spent a week as a volunteer at a clinic in Limbe. Submitted photo2 / 2

WILLMAR -- It was dark when Dr. Kevin Unger and the rest of the delegation of medical volunteers arrived at Hopital Bon Samaritain in the town of Limbe, in northern Haiti.

Their plane had landed a few hours earlier at Cap Haitien, where they boarded a van for the trip along mountain roads to their destination.

Outside the clinic, a woman who was 28 weeks pregnant was going into seizures from eclampsia, a life-threatening complication that can endanger both mother and baby.

"We dropped our bags and ran to the ER," Unger recalled.

Without proper medical supplies, the team had to improvise their way through an on-the-spot emergency delivery. The baby, who weighed only two pounds, was motionless as she was born.

The rest of the story is told in a couple of the photographs Unger brought home from Haiti, pictures of an infant lying swaddled in a hospital crib.

"Six days later that baby looked fabulous. That's just about miraculous she survived," he said.

The Willmar physician spent a week in Haiti at the beginning of February, volunteering in Limbe at the nonprofit hospital and clinic.

It's something that Unger, a urologist at Affiliated Community Medical Centers, has always wanted to do. The trip took on particular urgency when a severe earthquake shook Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, on Jan. 12, two weeks before Unger and the rest of the volunteers were scheduled to arrive. Thousands died in the earthquake; countless more were injured.

By the time the volunteer crew, mostly Minnesotans, reached Limbe, the immediate need for triaging and medical care was past. Some residents from Port-au-Prince who had relatives in Limbe had taken refuge there, and the medical team at Hopital Bon Samaritain treated several open wounds and emergency skin grafts among injured earthquake survivors.

The real needs, however, lay in basic medical care, Unger said.

"I just did a lot of everything," he said.

He fixed hernias, performed prostate and general surgery and helped deliver babies -- "basic, basic stuff," he said.

Consisting of a hospital, an orphanage and a clinic, Hopital Bon Samaritain is staffed by a core of Haitian physicians, aided by teams of medical volunteers that include physicians, nurses, midwives, anesthesiologists, pharmacists and lab technicians. Some stay for a week, while others stay for a month or longer.

They work in a country that is the most poverty-stricken in the western hemisphere. According to the World Health Organization, the national per capita income in Haiti is less than $2,000 a year. Life expectancy at birth is 59 years for men and 64 for women.

Haitian children are up against especially difficult odds. The country has the highest rate of infant mortality in the West and the highest rate of children under the age of 5 who are underweight.

Unger said the sight of houses made of concrete blocks and the pervasive odor of charcoal smoke and garbage gave him new insight into why the January earthquake was so devastating.

"There's just no infrastructure there," he said. "It was like nothing I had ever seen."

He arrived in Limbe with several thousand dollars' worth of much needed supplies donated by Rice Memorial Hospital, two large vials of antibiotics donated by Cash Wise Pharmacy and $2,550 in private donations.

The medical volunteers often found themselves relying on skill and creativity, however, rather than technology.

Unger likened it to "what surgery was like in the '50s."

"If you can't improvise, if you can't think on your feet, you're lost," he said. "There were a few times when I said, 'All right, Lord, help me get through this one.'"

He called it one of the most intense weeks he's ever had.

"What I would typically do in a month, I did in a week," he said.

Now that he's back home, Unger hopes to return to Haiti -- this time with a team of local volunteers who can not only provide care for patients but also help mentor the staff.

"The chance to be part of it is far bigger than me," he said. "It's reminded me of the privilege of practicing medicine. Can people actually make a difference? It's given me a whole different perspective on medicine."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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