LENOX -- Imagine arriving in a country devoid of food, water, electricity or basic sanitation. Imagine that the country has, essentially, no hospitals, no roads -- in fact, no real infrastructure at all. Then imagine that you and your small team of medical professionals have to somehow try to help the people of that country. It is almost unimaginable.
But that is what the husband and wife team of Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Pier Boutin faced when they arrived at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the night of Jan. 15. Hyman is the founder of the Ultra Wellness Center in Lenox, while Boutin is an orthopedic surgeon at Fairview Hospital.
The city and surrounding countryside had just been devastated by the massive Jan. 12 earthquake. Hyman, his wife, and a medical team that included Boutin's father, Dr. George Boutin, and Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, were among the first health care professionals to arrive in Haiti as part of a large international relief operation.
"And actually, there were no customs stations, no checkpoints, nothing," Farmer said. "We basically got off the plane and went to work."
Boutin said that within a relatively short time after learning of the earthquake, which hit 7.0 on the Richter scale, she and her husband were making plans to fly to the island nation in the Caribbean to help.
They received a van full of medical supplies from Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. They also got a quantity of camping supplies from the Arcadian Shop in Lenox.
Hyman recalled that while he was loading supplies from the Arcadian Shop into a van, he was about to drive away when he thought of something else the team might need: Head lamps.
"And I dashed back into the store to get some," Hyman said. "It was a good thing I remembered, because when we got there, there were no lights, no electricity, nothing. We used those lamps for three days."
And when they arrived, said Boutin, they needed every bit of the supplies and equipment they brought from the Berkshires.
"The only public hospital, the only hospital that treats poor people in Haiti, was completely shut down," she said. "When we arrived, there were about 1,500 people lying on the ground in front of the hospital, waiting. I could never have imagined, in my wildest dreams, what we would find when we got there. The whole city was rubble. There were a handful of buildings still standing, but they had huge cracks in them and you couldn't go inside."
Of the 12 buildings that make up the complex of the Haiti's Hopital General, said Boutin, three of them were still standing. The main building collapsed with about 150 nurses still inside.
"We've heard there around about 150,000 people dead," she said. "But they don't know how many people are under the rubble. I think [150,000] is a small number."
The days were long, and the days were tough. Everyone worked 18-hour days, slept a few hours, and got back to it as soon as they felt able.
Boutin was the only orthopedic surgeon at the hospital for those first few days, and she had to make some difficult choices. Some of the patients had arms or legs that were badly mangled. In a fully staffed, sanitary hospital, maybe some of these people would have been able to keep their limbs. In the ultra-primitive conditions at Port-Au-Prince, a lot of people's extremities were removed to save their lives.
"About 75 percent of the surgeries we did were amputations," she said.
"It was demanding," Hyman said. "At one point, someone there asked me how I was doing. I said, ‘Compared to what? Compared to these people, who had no food or water? Compared to that, I'm fine.' "
While the medical team was practicing medicine, they were also trying to coordinate the care. Within hours of the arrival of the Hyman-Boutin medical team, other international teams were coming in. Boutin and Hyman organized operating rooms and arranged for supplies, food and equipment to be flown in. They marshaled generators to channel electricity to the hospital, provided access to clean water and set up security teams.
"By the end of the week, we had restabilized the medical facilities," Hyman said.
The doctors were there a week, and returned over the weekend. Both wanted to stay longer, but there were patients back in the United States who also required their attention.
And despite the fact that the week was tiring, emotionally and physically draining, difficult, and at times frustrating, both are going back.
"We've already made arrangements to return," Hyman said. "There is a huge need. And we can be helpful."
"And we now know what to expect," Boutin said.