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A team from the Penn School of Medicine operates on an earthquake victim in Haiti. The team, sent to provide trauma care, went to the village of Cange.

Although the effects of the earthquake in Haiti continue to plague the island, the members of a relief team from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine returned home last week knowing that they had made a substantial, positive impact.

By clearing up infections, redressing wounds and revising amputations, the medical team reduced symptoms of suffering in severely injured patients and helped save patients that otherwise would have died.

“We ate, slept and operated,” said Michael Ashburn, an anesthesiologist who served as the team’s leader.

“We really didn’t do any cases that were heroic or glorious,” said Babak Sarani, a surgeon from Penn Med’s trauma center. “All the pulling people out of rubble and saving people’s lives was long over by the time we got there.”

Yet Sarani’s humility seems to understate the team’s accomplishments. They worked on 75 cases in nine days, mostly involving fracture fixation or amputation, as well as 20 skin grafts.

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we had an impact on suffering,” Sarani said.

The medical team, assembled to provide trauma care, was sent to work in the village of Cange with the nonprofit organization Partners in Health.

According to Ashburn, the collaboration with PIH was “a brilliant move.”

Because PIH established a presence in Haiti in 1983, “it increased our ability to do good for the people there,” Ashburn said.

He emphasized that the team worked as an integrated unit with the Haitian medical staff that was already in place.

“We did nuts-and-bolts anesthesia and surgery care for people who were in desperate need,” Ashburn said.

The medical team worked with limited infrastructure and equipment. The open and untreated injuries and stigma associated with the necessary amputations added to the team’s struggles, according to a press release written from Haiti by Samir Mehta, an orthopedic trauma surgeon on the team.

Sarani described one of the biggest challenges as “trying to maintain some modicum of sepsis control — I don’t want to say sterility because it didn’t exist.”

One of the largest patient wards, located in a converted church, held seventy patients with no air conditioning or ventilators.

The team’s patients ranged from 18 months to 70 years in age, and about half were children.

Members of the team attested to being personally moved by the experience, especially since patients were very trusting despite language boundaries.

The team was “incredibly impressed at the resilience, the kindness, the grace under pressure that the patients and staff showed,” particularly in light of the reality that every Haitian they met knew at least one person killed in the disaster, Ashburn said.

“We would love the opportunity to develop a long-term relationship in Haiti that combines education with service,” Ashburn added.

Sarani agreed. “I feel like there’s unfinished business there.”

Garry Scheib, the chief operating officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, could not speak of Penn Med’s future involvement in Haiti.

“We hope that everyone remembers that Haiti will need help for many months to come,” he wrote in an e-mail.

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