As a surgical tech, Amy Vinton has seen many things in her medical career.
She’s assisted in open heart surgeries, organ transplants, amputations and about any trauma surgery imaginable.
But nothing could have prepared Vinton, 26, for the things she saw as part of a medical team from Creighton University Medical Center that traveled to earthquake-ravaged Haiti for 10 days in January.
“There's nothing that could have prepared any of us for what we saw,” Vinton said. “It was like the gates of hell.”
More than 150,000 people were killed and more than twice that many were left injured in the wake of a 7.0 earthquake that devastated the country of 9 million on Jan. 12. Vinton, a 2002 Glenwood Community High School graduate, and a team of fellow doctors and nurses from Creighton were among the first American medical teams to arrive in Haiti four days later. A donated private jet flew the team and more than 700 pounds of medical supplies into Santiago, Dominican Republic. The next day, the team drove some seven hours to the Haiti border.
Vinton was handpicked for the team by surgeon Dr. Brian Loggie who coordinated the trip with the Institute for Latin American Concern, a Creighton -sponsored mission in the Dominican Republic.
“He asked me in the O.R. one day if I would go to Haiti and I said ‘Of course.’ And he said ‘OK, we leave Saturday.’ The whole mission was brought together in 36 hours,” Vinton said. “I was pretty honored he thought of me and thought I would be the best fit to go down there.”
Vinton and the team set up at a 20-bed clinic in Jimani, a small village just over the Dominican Republic border and 30 miles from the Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince. The 20-bed clinic was soon transformed into an 800-bed hospital.
“And that still wasn’t enough. People were out in tents, people were anywhere we could put them,” she said.
At Creighton, Vinton assists the surgeon in any operation. She passes instruments, helps retract, helps sew up patients. She’s also currently on the heart team and a part of the hospital’s Level 1 Trauma Team. In Haiti, Vinton served as nurse, doctor, surgeon and obstetrician.
“We walked off the bus and were thrown into the middle of chaos,” she said of her arrival in Jimani. “It was everything from open fractures to lacerations to hunger. A lot of people hadn’t eaten for four or five days. People that were burned. Wounds that were open and covered in flies.”
Temperatures rarely dipped below 110 degrees. Refugees poured out of the densely populated capital, overwhelming the small village clinics along the border.
“We went expecting the worst,” she said. “And it was worse than that. We didn’t have running water, no suction (for surgeries), you don’t have any of the supplies you normally have. You just have to do what you have to do.”
Vinton estimates the team did 80 amputations a day the first three days. The piles of body parts and limbs got so bad, crews were digging pits to burn them almost daily. Once the medical supplies ran out, surgeries and amputations were performed “Civil war style,” without sterilization and anesthesia. Rum was commonly used for both.
“Anything we could find, we used,” she said. “We were to the point where if we didn’t take this limb, they would die. And then gangrene was setting in. We had to do what we had to do.”
Vinton will never forget the sight and smell of the surgeries those first few days in Haiti.
“We could see and smell the limbs being burned. Even now I will be walking and I smell that, I’ll smell those burning bodies,” Vinton said.
On Thursday, four days after arriving, things began to look up, said Vinton. More medical personnel and volunteers began showing up and supplies began appearing more regularly.
“We were running out of supplies and a whole semi was unloading supplies for us. We never knew where they were coming from. It was like they were there by the grace of God,” she said. “We finally started getting organized and getting a system for treating people.”
On that same Thursday, Vinton assisted a Haitian woman deliver a baby girl.
“So I guess we did get to see some positive out of all the negatives we saw,” she said.
As bad as the medical facilities were, the injuries and the devastation to the entire country, it was the sight of the children that got to Vinton the most. The clinic became a gathering place for the hundreds of lost, orphaned and misplaced children. She got into a habit of visiting a group each day, taking them for walks and playing games.
“They became like my family and it was the hardest thing to do to leave them. But you have to leave it in the hands of God that they’ll be okay,” Vinton said.
On Jan. 20, Haiti began experiencing aftershocks of the earthquake. The first measured 6.1 and while subsequent quakes were smaller and less dangerous, Vinton felt just how powerful that Jan. 12 quake must have been.
“I just felt everything shake and I got sort of dizzy like a semi passing right in front of me.”
The largest of the aftershocks emptied the Jimani clinic. Patients refused to go back inside so Vinton and the other medical teams treated patients outside and in tents.
“I couldn’t blame them,” said Vinton. “If that (aftershock) was a little one, I could imagine what the one that knocked their house down must have felt like.”
Vinton used words like devastating, awful and life changing when describing her 10 days in Haiti. But not once does she portray any regret for going. And she has no doubts she will go back. She and other members of the team have already talked about a return trip with a shipment of prosthetic limbs for the amputees.
“I think of all the things we did over there for 10 days and it wasn’t even one percent of what needs to be done,” she said. “We probably treated about 1,500 people and there are still literally thousands of people untreated.
“I will go back. I will still fulfill this mission. Yes, it was an awful experience, but I have to go back and I have to make sure these people are taken care of.”