Local medical professionals answer Haiti's call for help

  • Physician's Assistant Ron Spruill, Richard Milford, M.D., Ralph Salvagno, M.D., and Nurse Anesthetist Jim Roupe, all of whom work in Hagerstown, stand in front of the United Hospital of Pierre Payen in Haiti where they served during a medical mission trip. The hospital is about 50 miles from Port-au-Prince.
Submitted photo,

HAGERSTOWN -- "If I had a way of getting down there, I would go."

Dr. Richard Milford, an orthopaedic surgeon with Mid-Atlantic Orthopaedic Specialists in Hagerstown, spoke those words as he watched news reports days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12.

As he spoke, his wife, Susan, sat at her computer catching up on e-mails. Fewer than 10 minutes later, she received a message from Teresa Spruill, whose husband, Ron Spruill, is a physician's assistant at the Center for Joint Surgery and Sports Medicine.

"There is a group leaving next Friday," Susan Milford told her husband.

"I was a little taken aback that she was getting me shipped out that fast," Richard Milford said.

Ron Spruill attends Church of God in Cascade, which supports a mission in Pierre Payen, Haiti, through Cross Cultural Ministries Project Help Haiti.

"We had a meeting at church to discuss what we could do for Haiti. One thing that came up was the need for orthopaedic surgeons," Spruill said.


Spruill said church members, knowing his line of work, "dropped a strong hint" his way. A retired Navy corpsman with experience responding to mass casualties, he was on board. Teresa Spruill set to work researching flights and soliciting supplies and donations.

Dr. Ralph Salvagno, an orthopaedic surgeon with the Center for Joint Surgery and Sports Medicine, and nurse anesthetist Jim Roupe agreed to make the trip. Spruill's son, Jason Spruill, and a colleague, both former Navy corpsmen who live in Texas, would round out the team.

"Initially, I was concerned we would need to pack right up and go," Ralph Salvagno said. "Fortunately, (Project Help Haiti) already had some teams committed, so that gave us a little opportunity to move and reschedule patients for the week we'd be away."

Medical personnel rescheduled appointment and surgeries for nearly 200 patients, Salvagno said.

Team members scoured their offices and requested loans and donations of medical equipment -- from an anesthesia machine to orthopaedic implants -- from other practitioners and sales representatives. Salvagno said packing the right materials was key to the team's effort.

"It's a real issue when you are responding to an emergency like that. You bring what you need," he said.

The day before the team's departure, news of an impending snowstorm threatened to cancel their donated commercial flights. In a last-minute scramble, they managed to book earlier flights to beat the storm's arrival. On Saturday, Feb. 6, while waiting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the team received permission to land at the Port-au-Prince airport.

From the plane, Milford noticed a hospital ship and "something obviously significant going on."

"When we flew lower, we started to see tent cities, various colored pieces of plastic with people living underneath. There were pieces of paper, cardboard, whatever they had. And as we got closer, I realized some things I'd seen from the air ... were actual buildings that had just been flattened," he said.

Spruill recalled being struck by unpleasant odors when the plane door was opened.

"The smell really gets to you. It's dusty, smoky, there's not a lot of sanitation. There were still a lot of dead bodies then, too. There were more than 200,000 dead and it was less than four weeks after the quake. Some had been buried, and some were just under the rubble," Spruill said.

On the ground

Ships packed the bay, helicopters hovered and military planes from various countries came and went.

The medical team loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck for the ride north to Pierre Payen. From the truck, the men witnessed the devastation in Port-au-Prince. People were moving debris and salvaging things from it. Others were setting up poles and sheets to use as makeshift homes.

"People had been reduced to scrounging around trying to figure where their next meal was going to come from. (More than) three weeks after the earthquake, there was still a fair amount on confusion on the ground," Milford said.

Pierre Payen is about 50 miles from Port-au-Prince, but traveling conditions were harsh and it took the team more than two hours to reach its destination. It was a hospital with more than 20 beds and one operating room.

Milford said the living compound consisted of "a little room with six little cots." Dogs, chickens and goats milled around the hospital courtyard.

"Even in the absence of an earthquake, Haitian people are used to minimal services," Milford said. "The hospital had no running water a couple of days. Electricity was spotty and it seemed to shut down around 10 each night. The temperature was 80 to 85 degrees."

The team, the fourth rotation to arrive at the hospital, set to work with patients who received acute care from previous teams. They dealt with mostly extremity and spinal injuries, Salvagno said, sometimes performing surgeries using metal rods and screws to provide support where bones had been fractured.

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