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‘It looked like a scene from Apocalypse Now’

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Southwestern alum provides medical care to victims of earthquake in Haiti

Eleven days after a massive earthquake hit Haiti in January, Southwestern graduate Chris Chaput was on a plane to help provide medical care for victims of the earthquake.  

Chaput, who now serves as a spinal surgeon and director of orthopedic research at Scott & White Hospital in Temple, flew to Haiti Jan. 23 along with three other surgeons from Scott and White, an anesthesiologist and an ICU nurse.

The team was put together to assist Project Help-Haiti, which operates a surgical center in Pierre Payen, about 40 miles north of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Chaput said he heard the organization needed help from a friend of his who he had done his residency with. That friend had gone down to Haiti immediately after the earthquake and saw the need for a team of orthopedic surgeons.  

Chaput and his team flew to Haiti on a donated private plane along with 400 pounds of supplies they had spent a week gathering before the trip. At first, their plane was diverted to the Turks and Caicos because there were so many other planes trying to land at the airport in Port-au-Prince. When they were finally able to land in Haiti, Chaput said it was “complete chaos” on the tarmac.   “It looked like a scene from Apocalypse Now,” he said.  

However, the team was pleasantly surprised when they got to the surgical center in Pierre Payen, which was built in 2001.  

“This hospital is a jewel in terms of Haiti,” Chaput said, explaining that unlike many other hospitals in the country, they had air conditioning as well as an autoclave to sterilize equipment.  

Chaput said the hospital’s operating room was not in use when they arrived, so they spent Saturday night getting it ready and began operating the following day. They made an ambulance out of a large ice truck and went into Port-au-Prince to transport patients from a hospital there that had more patients than it could care for. “They had hundreds of people camped out there,” he said.  

Chaput said his team selected people who could most benefit from the specialized implants they had brought to hold broken bones together. The team worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day and performed a total of 29 major surgeries during the week as well as 23 minor procedures. They slept in a dorm Project Help-Haiti had next to the hospital.  

Chaput said his most memorable case came on the last day when he did a “massive” spinal surgery on a 24-year-old man who had been paralyzed when his house came down on his back. The man lost his entire family in the earthquake except his mother. “They were trying to get him on the Navy medical ship, but it was overwhelmed,” Chaput said.  

Despite not having an X-ray machine, Chaput said the surgery went well and they were able to stabilize the man’s condition.

Chaput’s team was relieved Jan. 31 by a team from Fort Worth. He said volunteers who have put together 10 different surgical teams for Project Help-Haiti who will travel to Haiti in the coming months. Chaput said he may go back at some point if there is a need.  

“I’ve never done anything like this before, but I think we did some good,” he said.