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Saving life and limb: critical care nurse treats patients in Haiti

U.S. Airmen with the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron offer medical assistance to a Haitian girl at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 16, 2010. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg/Released)

U.S. Airmen with the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron offer medical assistance to a Haitian girl at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 16, 2010. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg/Released)

A U.S. Air Force medical technician from Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla., checks on Haitian patients in a field clinic in Port au Prince, Haiti, Jan. 16, 2010. The patients were injured by the devastating earthquake that struck the city Jan. 12, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Russell E. Cooley IV/Released)

A U.S. Air Force medical technician from Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla., checks on Haitian patients in a field clinic in Port au Prince, Haiti, Jan. 16, 2010. The patients were injured by the devastating earthquake that struck the city Jan. 12, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Russell E. Cooley IV/Released)

A six-year-old Haitian boy is given water by a medical technician with 1st Special Operations Support Squadron at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 19, 2010. The boy will be airlifted to a hospital in southern Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James L. Harper Jr./Released)

A six-year-old Haitian boy is given water by a medical technician with 1st Special Operations Support Squadron at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 19, 2010. The boy will be airlifted to a hospital in southern Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James L. Harper Jr./Released)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- The earthquake that struck Haiti Jan. 12 forever changed the lives of countless people.

For many, the devastation preceded the loss of possessions or a home. For some, it also took a limb or the life of a loved one.

Perhaps no one group has been more exposed to the bare humanity of the disaster than the medics on the fore front of saving each victims' life.

Maj. Jon Earles, one of four critical care nurses with the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron, treated more than 100 patients and performed surgeries during his time in Haiti Jan. 21-24 with other medical technicians at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

Before the five-hour flight to Haiti Jan. 21, Major Earles said he had an idea of what the quake-stricken island would look like.

"I saw the devastation in pictures and on TV, but it was pretty surreal to see it when we were flying over or driving through a city," he said. "There would be one building still standing and 10 in a row were completely leveled. It reminded me of when I saw a building get imploded in Las Vegas- they were that flat."

The quake's aftermath also took its toll on the country's hospitals, with few left to accommodate the large number of survivors needing treatment.

"There were thousands of people just outside the embassy," he said. "The medical facilities still standing were overwhelmed."

Despite his team's willingness to help, they faced limitations from the quantity of resources to meet the needs of so many patients.

"We were not built for that type of sustained mission- to see patient after patient," Major Earles said. "The supply chain from the wing was what kept us going, otherwise we would have run out of supplies the first day."

Using the embassy as their central site to treat patients, military medical teams set up the building's conference room for surgeries. Part of Major Earle's critical care nurse training taught him to perform surgery in any area of opportunity, no matter the conditions. Teams had to use lounge chairs for operations instead of the preferred hospital operating table.

"I heard a lot about the Civil War-type medical conditions, with people using hacksaws and no anesthetics for amputations," Major Earles said.

While his medical teams traveled with all necessary narcotics and anesthetics and were able to medicate all their patients appropriately, Major Earles had to treat cases who had already received care from people who were not as surgically trained.

"Some of the people who performed amputations weren't surgeons, and that's something you don't want to see," he said. "We saw some people with bones sticking out with no dressing on it and we thought: 'Who did this?'"

Many victims who had amputations and spinal cord injuries will require more help for the rest of their lives, Major Earles said. One of the cases that he said stood out was a woman pulled out of a wrecked hotel who had both of her arms amputated.

"She was a beautiful, young woman, and she was left with no arms," he said. "I kept thinking: 'How is she going to feed herself? Who is she going to have to take care of her?' You wonder what's going to happen to her. We have all these social services in the states where people undergo amputations and later get prosthetics. She's not going to have any of that."

Apart from the medical operations, Major Earles said the biggest story to come out was the rising number of children who were the sole survivors of the quake.

"There were some missionaries who brought in some orphans, and they said the number of kids they received doubled," he said. "I'm sure there's so many more down there who haven't made it to an orphanage yet."

Reflecting on the humanity that endured the event, Major Earles said the devastation made him think of all the things he had back home.

"They're without drinkable water and have little to eat," he said. "It's incredible what hardships the people there are going through there."

Major Earles returned to Hurlburt Field Jan. 24, but he said he was awaiting the call to go back to Haiti and save others.

"No matter how much you do, you wish you could do more because there's such a great need there," he said. "I was only there a short time, but I'm glad we were able to help the people we did."