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John Brebbia: Surgeon's Work Honors Fallen Friend

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, December 2, 2010

Soon enough, however, the needs on the ground overtook the shock as the team scurried to provide care in the ruins. "There was one building we thought we were going to use the first day we got there. When we came back the next day to set it up, it had come down in one of the aftershocks," Brebbia says.

With all of the hospitals either flattened or wobbling and unsafe, Brebbia and his colleagues got tents, diesel fuel, and other critical supplies from members of the Canadian army—who also commandeered a generator from the office of a reluctant hospital administrator—and began work. "I would say we worked between 16 and 20 hours a day depending upon the day," Brebbia says, adding that he performed about 30 operations requiring anesthesia during his eight-day mission, and treated hundreds of other patients for wounds and ailments.

As expected, the surgeries for Brebbia often involved amputations of limbs crushed in the falling debris. "Probably the worst one I saw was a 3-year-old whose leg I had to take off. Her leg was totally crushed just above the ankle. I took it off just below the knee," he said. For many of the amputations, Brebbia used an old-fashioned gigli saw because the rescue team wasn't sure if they'd have access to electrical power. With the generator, Brebbia's team powered an autoclave plucked from the rubble of a hospital. "Initially we thought we were gong to have to use and throw away, but the Canadian Army really helped us," he says.

Even with the tremendous sense of mission for the work at hand, Brebbia says the trip was fraught with "huge frustrations."

"Things could have been done better. When we first arrived in Jacmel the mayor said none of us could work because he couldn't verify who we were. They didn't have a plan to verify who we were and they weren't going to let us work," Brebbia says.

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