Team Sinai Completes Seventh Surgical Mission to Haiti

Team Sinai/Operation Rainbow sits on the front steps of Haiti Adventist Hospital on the mission’s last day. (Photo provided)

“They make a great team” is a phrase often used to describe couples who work well together and complement each other’s strengths. That phrase works especially well to describe John E. Herzenberg and his wife, Merrill Chaus — along with the doctors and nurses they have been taking to Haiti since a catastrophic earthquake displaced more than a million people in 2010.

Since that devastating disaster, which left thousands dead, Herzenberg, director of the International Center for Limb Lengthening and director of pediatric orthopedics at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, and Chaus, a recovery room nurse at Westminster Surgery Center and team coordinator, have taken a cadre of surgeons and nurses to Haiti for weeklong missions during which dozens of orthopedic surgeries are performed for children and Sinai and Haitian medical professionals get a chance to learn from each other.

Team Sinai, known in Haiti as Ekip Sinai, returned at the end of April from Haiti Adventist Hospital, where the team of 16 hailing from Canada, the Dominican Republic, Baltimore, Israel and Salt Lake City performed 30 surgeries, including straightening crooked bones, realigning former broken bones, repairing club feet and knitting up torn knee cartilage.

Dr. Ron Delanois teaches Dr. Francel Alexis the subtleties of arthroscopy, a relatively new service that Dr. Terry Dietrich instituted recently at Haiti Adventist Hospital. (Photo provided)

“Our focus is orthopedic surgery for children,” Herzenberg said. “We treat lots of kids with club foot, cerebral palsy, fractures and other birth defects. All for free.”

Herzenberg and Chaus, who live in Greenspring Valley and attend Chabad of Owings Mills, have been doing international volunteer work for 20 years, starting as team members with the San Francisco-based Operation Rainbow. They traveled to Nicaragua, Ecuador and Uganda, after which the couple decided to focus their mission on leading teams to Haiti themselves.

“We did that for 10 years, going mainly to Nicaragua, until the Sandinista government got back into power and they did not want American doctors coming in anymore,” Chaus said. “So, in 2010, when the earthquake happened in Haiti, we were closest. I went first by myself without a team about two weeks after to see what the situation was on the ground and if they could use our help.”

Before arriving in Haiti, Herzenberg and Chaus regularly consult with Haiti Adventist Hospital orthopedic surgeons Francel Alexis and American expat orthopedic surgeon Scott Nelson.

“They identify patients who come through their orthopedic clinic and schedule the surgeries for the various teams that come down to help,” Herzenberg said. “They match the patients invited for surgery to the skill set of the team.”

This year, Team Sinai included six Sinai surgeons, fellows and residents, including Herzenberg; two anesthetists, one from Israel and one from the Dominican Republic; seven nurses, including Chaus, from Johns Hopkins, Canada and the Dominican Republic; and a Canadian physical therapist.

In order to better serve and communicate with the Haitian doctors and nurses, half of this year’s team was fluent in French and Creole, the country’s primary languages.

“That was not by accident or coincidence. We go out of our way to recruit team members who are not only outstanding in their craft, but also speak French and/or Haitian Creole,” Herzenberg said.

A few years ago, Chaus went back to college, earning her master’s degree in international public health. Her thesis, “The Dark Side of Doing Good,” was informed by research she had done during the Haiti missions.

“We had been doing missions for so long and I always had this feeling we were just kind of parachuting in, taking care of 20 or 30 patients and flying out,” Chaus said. “I couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong. I couldn’t engage the local healthcare workers. We had translators. So, I interviewed the healthcare workers to see what their perception is of us. The most important thing that I changed in our missions was getting Creole and French speakers on our team.”

Sinai’s Dr. Michael Assayag, left, originally from Quebec, was able to teach the deformity planning course in French. (Photo provided)

Another modification included a new emphasis on teaching.

“We carefully craft our team by recruiting team members with particularly good skills not only in surgery/nursing, but also in teaching,” Herzenberg said.

In April, the team arrived in Haiti with 16 huge duffel bags stuffed with medical supplies and equipment from Baltimore and more than 1,000 pounds of donated equipment from Montreal. During the week, in addition to the many surgeries, the nursing team delivered lectures and workshops every day in French and Creole to local nurses, many of whom traveled several hours to attend.

Meanwhile, the surgical team offered a workshop to a dozen local Haitian orthopedic surgery residents on long bone deformity correction and a hands-on tutorial on an exterior frame used to correct difficult bone fractures and bone deformities.

By week’s end, after surgeries and workshops were done, the team was ready to pack up and head home.

“Our team said goodbye to both old friends and new, with bonds formed in the heat of battle. A battle to help to provide safe, state-of-the-art orthopedic care to many indigent Haitian children and adults,” Herzenberg said. “And a battle to support the fine work being done at Adventist Hospital, our home away from home.”

The missions are supported by Operation Rainbow and the Sinai Hospital of Baltimore’s Rubin Institute Save-A-Limb Fund.

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