Three medical workers from Maryland experience the fury of Hurricane Mitch Volunteer team traveled to Nicaraguan village to offer surgical skills

November 04, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

It was when the lights started flickering in the small, Spanish-built hospital last Wednesday that Dr. John E. Herzenberg knew Hurricane Mitch had struck the remote Nicaraguan village where he was working.

"We didn't get a lot of the rain from Hurricane Mitch, but we did get a lot of the wind," said Herzenberg, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical System.

Herzenberg, who works at the system's Kernan Hospital; Dr. Steven Bernstein, an orthopedic resident; and Bonnie Wheat, a nurse and patient-care manager, returned to Baltimore-Washington International Airport last night after a week-long medical mission to Nicaragua, where they were stranded for five days because of Hurricane Mitch.

The three were part of a team of 25 medical workers from across the U.S. that traveled to Nicaragua in conjunction with Operation Rainbow, a Houston-based nonprofit organization that sends volunteer health-care workers to undeveloped countries.

All three said they were relieved to be home. They also said they felt they had accomplished their mission despite the hurricane, which cut short their medical work by one day but delayed their departure.

Herzenberg said that the hurricane knocked out 25 bridges and closed dozens of roads around Esteli, a city of 100,000 people north of Managua where the team went to perform reconstructive surgery, often on children born with club feet.

Herzenberg said that when the team tried to get to the hospital last Thursday for a fourth day of surgery, roads were washed out and they were confined to their hotel. They remained stranded there for five days.

The town had telephone service, but the water stopped running Saturday and the electricity went out for good on Sunday, he said.

"By Sunday, we really started getting concerned about our safety," Herzenberg said.

Herzenberg said that because the area is so remote, the easiest way out of Esteli is by Nicaraguan Armyhelicopters -- all of which were grounded by the weather.

"There was just no way to get in or out of there," he said.

Herzenberg said that medical team members did not stay in the wake of Hurricane Mitch because their expertise -- orthopedics -- was not needed in the relief efforts.

"What they need are experts in infectious diseases and public health, doctors who can diagnose and treat cholera and dysentery," he said.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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