'They're Scared, Terribly Scared' Teddy Bears and Treatment for Badly Injured Haitian Children

Children are the hardest hit victims of the earthquake in Haiti. The ones with the worst injuries are brought to the US hospital ship USNS Comfort in the harbor of Port-au-Prince. The hopelessness has even the toughest doctors near the end of the rope.

By aboard the USNS Comfort, Haiti


The screams are the most haunting part. They echo through the bowels of the ship, day and night, children's screams of fear, panic and pain.

There's the five-year-old girl in the little, yellow summer dress. She's been brought aboard by helicopter only minutes before, the mangled remains of her left leg bandaged from hip to toe. She's twisting in anguish, clutching a stuffed leopard.

"Maman! Maman!" she cries again and again. But no one knows who or where her mother is.

Two doctors and four nurses surround the girl, trying to calm her down, without success. A male nurse turns away, sweat and tears running down his face.

Photo Gallery

13  Photos
Photo Gallery: A Microcosm of Agony and Hope

Hope and hopelessness reign aboard the US hospital ship USNS Comfort, moored in the harbor of Port-au-Prince. The oil-tanker-turned-floating-hospital was meant for war but now is the anchor of the medical relief efforts in Haiti -- and a microcosm of the agony being suffered across this ravaged country.

Either way, the doctors on the Comfort accomplish heroic deeds by the minute. Some patients are saved, others are lost. That alone is hard enough -- but when children are involved, it can be unbearable.

Two beds over another girl is screaming hysterically, lashing about with her arms. "Papa! Papa!" She's 10 at most, yet three strong nurses can barely hold her down. Finally, they close a curtain. The screams continue unabated.

'Some of these Kids Have Never Seen a Doctor'

Isn't this just like real combat? "Yes, the feeling and the process are the same," says Lieutenant Commander Dan D'Aurora, who runs the triage and trauma unit, which houses dozens of Haitians who just came aboard. "This is what we're trained to do."

D'Aurora is 35, a short, wiry man with a crew cut and dark circles around his eyes. "I've been doing this since I was 18," he says wearily. On the back of his uniform he's written the nickname they gave him: "Pitbull."

More than 200 Haitians have already been treated on the Navy ship, with more coming aboard every day. They're filling the beds as quickly as the staff can handle it.

Almost half of the patients are children. They're the most vulnerable and yet hardest hit victims of the quake. Most have lost their homes and at least one parent, and all have lost that sense of security that's called childhood.

"They are scared, terribly scared," says D'Aurora. "I'd be scared as hell, too. Some of these kids have never seen a doctor before."

The staff put little placards around their necks, with their names and -- less often -- the phone number of a relative. Many children have a first name only, which often is all they can get out when they come here. They repeat those names, over and over, and the doctors have adopted that rhythm. Look, here's "Anna-Anna." And over there, that's "Bob-Bob."

Five hundred fifty doctors, nurses and support staff from the US race around the clock to help them, and another 350 medical personnel are on their way. On the first day the Comfort got here they operated until 4:30 a.m. But they can't change the fate of the littlest patients. They can only try to ease it.

'It Is Unbelievable. Just Unbelievable'

There are cardboard boxes under the reception desk of the triage station. They contain stuffed animals in all sizes and colors, sorted by "boys" and "girls." There are lions, giraffes, bears, a white and brown pony. A nurse's daughter organized a toy drive at her school. So far, they've gotten more than 100 cuddly animals to put on every child's bed.

The Comfort treats the worst cases of all the thousands injured in Haiti. Those who can't be helped anymore on land, in those tent clinics which are still overstrained, understaffed and lacking medical supplies. There are bone fractures, crush injuries, internal injuries, infections. Every other patient on the Comfort, they tell you, would die without further treatment.

The other day, Commander Bob Fetherson, who heads the operation unit, treated a nine-year-old with badly burned legs. She also seemed to have internal injuries not visible to the eye. The best Fetherson could do for her at first was to rub some cream on her legs.

"Some of these injuries I've never, never seen before," says Fetherson, 45, an experienced surgeon. "Some arrive, and their extremities are already dead."

In that case they need to be amputated. How many amputations has he performed so far? "Too many," says Fetherson. "Twenty? Maybe more. Too many for kids, especially. Another thing I've never seen before. Unbelievable. Just unbelievable."

Some have criticized the Comfort for taking too long to get here -- almost five days, coming from her home port of Baltimore, Maryland. "Just take a look at this size of this thing," replies D'Aurora, almost incensed. "All that takes time."

Three Newborn Babies on the Comfort

The Comfort is essentially a huge city hospital: 894 feet long, 69,360 tons, five ward decks for as many as 1,000 patients, that's as many beds as the entire New York University Medical Center. The intensive care unit alone has 80 beds. The 12 operating rooms are located deep inside the ship, where it rocks the least.

Navy helicopters -- mostly "Sea Dragons" from the enormous aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson ambling nearby -- bring the injured from the shore. The patients arrive on the noisy flight deck upstairs and are immediately wheeled through a narrow steel door down inside. R&B music from a tiny speaker behind the door, apparently to calm everyone's nerves, is drowned out by the shouts of sailors and pilots.

The first stop is the triage floor, from where the patients are distributed to the Emergency Room, the Intensive Care Unit or the Operating Room. People can be heard moaning everywhere. The doctors and nurses move from one bed to the next, in an eerily calm rush. As soon as the injured are processed and have been given initial treatment -- bandages, medications, a cast -- they're moved on, and within seconds the beds are made fresh for the next.

Further down in the ship, far from the drama and behind heavy doors, is the pediatric wing. This is one of the few places aboard where there's peace and quiet and, occasionally, hope.

The Comfort currently houses three newborn babies. All of them are "preemies," premature deliveries. Esther sleeps in an incubator, her names and her weight are written on a piece of paper taped to it. Next to her is Angel, who arrived in the arms of a sailor, blue in the face and almost dead after a seizure, yet she survived.

'We Have to Focus on Those We Save'

In the back of the room, in a crib, Vinson is sleeping. He was born the Sunday after the quake and was named after the aircraft carrier on which he spent his first night. From the bed next to him his mother, 21-year-old Jean Beline, watches over him.

Beline ran out of her house only seconds before the quake, "it was a premonition," she says. She gave birth by c-section aboard a US Coast Guard cutter, which brought her to the Vinson. From there, they were flown to the Comfort.

"Vinson," says Beline. "I like that name."

A US sailor makes the rounds among the kids. Usually, 26-year-old Victone Ernsley works in the galley of the Comfort. Since his parents are Haitian and he speaks Creole himself, his new job now is to just sit with the children, to console them and hold their hands. "This way I can do something for my country," he says.

But even the toughest professionals here are reaching the end of the rope. Commander Fetherson relies on "good friends," e-mails from his wife in Maine and the occasional "nice smile" to get him through the day. Still, once in a while he has to excuse himself into a quiet corner to let his feelings out.

"Of course we're upset," says D'Aurora. "We care for these people. But we have to focus on those we save. Not on those we lose."

'What Am I Gonna Do? What Will Happen to My Future?'

So far three patients have died on the Comfort. The ship's chaplain David Oravec is ready to offer last rites. Oravec, a Lutheran priest, has a sad face and talks in a hushed voice. "I offer them prayer", he says. "Ninety-nine percent want it."

What does he tell them? "That God would help them in this time of trouble. That God is on this ship, too."

Fetherson recalls a patient he cannot get out of his head. It was his patient No. 23. A young man who was buried under the rubble for three days. Fetherson amputated his right arm and his right leg below the knee.

The man was a student, "very well educated," and he spoke English fluently. "What am I gonna do?" he asked the doctor. "What will happen to my future?"

Hi didn't have an answer, Fetherson says. "He was just 21. Same age as my daughter." With that, he averts his eyes, and a single tear runs down his cheek.

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