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Local doctor helps in Haitian relief effort

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Posted: Sunday, January 24, 2010 12:00 am

When a Haitian teenager with a skull fracture pulled on Dr. Pat Mahar's hand earlier this week and told him "I want my life," the St. Bonaventure University graduate knew that he and the others with his medical group would have to do everything they could to help her.

That story and other accounts, which included conducting operations on a dining room table, were shared by Dr. Mahar who made a week—long visit to Haiti to help earthquake victims. Dr. Mahar, a pediatrician and native of Olean, chronicled most of his daily activities on a BonaResponds blog site and through e—mail correspondence. He also spoke with the Olean Times Herald by phone when he returned home to the United States Friday.

A 1994 graduate of St. Bonaventure and the University of Buffalo's School of Medicine, Dr. Mahar currently works at Children's Hospital emergency department in Denver.

"When the earthquake happened I knew I wanted to get involved, but I personally did not have the connections to make this happen," Dr. Mahar said. "Once a group from Colorado was being put together, I was asked if I wanted to join due to my prior international health experience and my background in pediatric emergency medicine."

He said he was lucky to have co—workers who agreed to cover his hospital shifts, as well as the shifts of two other doctors at the hospital who went on the mission trip. Dr. Mahar said his experience in Third World countries stems from two medical trips to Ghana where he had helped out with a orphanage. He noted that he is currently working to have a new home built for  orphans in Ghana with funding he is receiving from a children's book he wrote.

His qualifications also include experience from a humanitarian trip to Cuba, as well as serving as an instructor for the American Academy of Pediatrics disaster preparedness course.

"But this was my first chance to play an actual hands—on roll in this area" of care needed in Haiti, Dr. Mahar said.

He said his medical team, consisting of six people from Children's Hospital and another five from hospitals in Denver and Colorado, arrived Sunday and stayed on the grounds of the Matthew 25 Field Hospital in Port—au—Prince. He said Dr. Jim Toth and registered nurse Barb Burk from Atlanta had arrived before them and had established the camp.

In his blog entries, Dr. Mahar said that when they arrived in Haiti with 1,000 pounds of medical supplies, military presence was heavy and they were accompanied by a retired New York City police officer who provided security among other duties.

Dr. Mahar said he was a bit concerned about the media reports of violence in Haiti, but soon realized that much of this had been exaggerated by the press.

"The time I was most scared about trip was when I was sitting in the Denver airport and saw reports about how dangerous it was and the rioting. It wasn't like that at all," he said.

To the contrary, most of the Haitians they came in contact with where kind to strangers and waited patiently in long lines for their supplies.

At Matthew 25, they found a long—established hospitality house that is open to Americans participating in missionary trips and other humanitarian endeavors. They were greeted by Sister Mary Finnick, who runs the home and is from Buffalo. As the home also suffered damage from the earthquake, they slept in tents outside.

Dr. Mahar said the level of destruction in the city and surrounding area was "beyond belief."  While they didn't see dead bodies in the street, they were reminded of the human decay buried in hundreds of buildings from the stench that wafted through areas of Port—au—Prince.

The doctor said his services were needed immediately upon his arrival. He was quickly recruited into assisting with operations that were conducted on a dining room table at the field hospital.

"We had people eating at one table while an operation was going on at another table," he said.

The medical team felt fortunate, however, as they had sedation medication for their patients. They heard that other medical facilities in the city were not as lucky with some conducting amputations with only the aid of anesthetics.

Dr. Mahar said the team also found areas of the community that hadn't received any real medical care.

"We continued to have unbelievably bad wound infections and lots of orthopedic issues," he said. In addition, the most basic sanitation needs were not being addressed in the community.

"People are drinking and urinating in the same water that is full of garbage," Dr. Mahar wrote in another entry from earlier in the week. "There is going to be real infection problems and this will lead to even more deaths. This country still needs lots of long—term help."

He reported later in the week that pit holes were dug in areas away from water sources and children and others were instructed to use them to relieve themselves.

Dr. Mahar said an additional earthquake that hit the country on Wednesday was "a new experience and interesting way to wake up" in their tents. 

He said the one patient encounter that he will likely always remember is that of an 18—year—old girl who had a severe skull fracture and needed more help than his team could provide.

After driving the girl across town to another hospital with a yard full of patients, they were told the facility had no imaging ability and no neurosurgeon.

"We were told that we could leave her out front and 'maybe things would change.' At this point she pulled on my hand and said in English 'I want my life,' Dr. Mahar said. "At that point we knew there was no way we were leaving her" as she would likely be unattended and die.

They took her back to their field hospital and the next morning began searching again for another hospital with neurosurgery capabilities.

Although they drove the girl in a truck over bumpy roads and were turned away by two other hospitals, they didn't give up. Through a concerted effort involving other doctors and nurses, they learned that the USS Comfort floating hospital might be the answer. Through additional help provided by a doctor who "tracked down a reporter from CBS" they contacted the ship.

"Next thing I know, they (ship officials) are asking for landing coordinates to bring us a Blackhawk helicopter," Dr. Mahar said.

Eventually, the girl, accompanied by her only surviving family member, was taken to the ship's hospital for help. In parting, she told her doctor friends that she would try to e—mail them to let them know how she was progressing.

"I don't think there was a dry eye amongst the team members with her," Dr. Mahar said.

"From what we have been told, NPR (National Public Radio) picked up this story and ran it nationally."

He said his team was disappointed that they had to leave Friday, a day earlier than planned, as that was when Mission Flights International could arrange a flight. Dr. Mahar said their supplies and tents were left behind for the next group of doctors who were coming in to replace them. 

"It was a great feeling to know we accomplished something," he said. 

Dr. Mahar said his medical team hopes to continue helping the country by collecting donations for the Haitian victims. In addition, he said groups such as BonaResponds, coordinated by his brother, Jim Mahar, also hope to provide help to the country in ensuing months.

In addition to his brother, who works at St. Bonaventure, Dr. Mahar said he stayed in touch with parents, Jim and Marge Mahar of Olean, during his whirlwind trip to Haiti.

When contacted Saturday, Mrs. Mahar, a school teacher at Archbishop Walsh High School, said she and her family are very proud of Pat.

"I personally was worried about the dangers involved, but sometimes you just have to pray and trust that things will be all right, and they were," Mrs. Mahar said.

She said that Pat, her youngest son, had just visited Olean during the holidays before returning to his home in Denver. After arriving in Florida from Haiti on Friday, Dr. Mahar returned to Denver on Saturday.

 "He's a good guy. He works hard and helps other," Mrs. Mahar said of her son. "The family's reaction is that we're grateful he's back, safe and sound."

Dr. Mahar's daily comments on his trip can be read on the BonaResponds blog at http://bonaresponds.blogspot.com/search/label/pat.

(Contact reporter Kate Day Sager at kates_th@yahoo.com)

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