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’You’re basically working in battlefield conditions’


Therapists from the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Cape and Islands help Haitian earthquake survivors

SANDWICH, MA – Matthew Keilty, Nora Kenneway and Gordon Smith are no strangers to health care crises in Third World countries. The therapists from the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Cape and Islands (RHCI) have worked in Africa, Central and South America.

But nothing prepared them for their mission trip to Haiti.

“The first thing you notice when you come in from the airport is the rubble,” Smith said. “It’s everywhere. Four months after the earthquake and nothing’s been cleaned up. There’s just this mass of humanity with no place to go.”

Added Kenneway, “You’re basically working in battlefield conditions.”

The three just returned to RHCI after treating earthquake survivors in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

On Jan 12, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled the island nation, killing 250,000 and leaving millions homeless.

Keilty, 38, an inpatient occupational therapist from Mashpee, Kenneway, 38, an outpatient occupational supervisor from Marstons Mills, and Smith, 51, an outpatient physical therapist from East Falmouth, volunteered for a program created by Partners in Health, a Boston-based non-profit health care organization which provides care in areas of extreme poverty.

In all, 14 occupational and physical therapists from RHCI and other hospitals in the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network have traveled to Haiti since March 1. They were all based at Hopital de l’Universite d’etat d’Haiti, the capital’s main public hospital.

“Whatever need arose we tried to meet as best we could with the supplies we had,” Keilty said. “It became a mantra: We will do the best we can, with what we have, to try and meet the needs of the patients.”

During Keilty’s shift in March, they didn’t have much. In one case, Keilty was forced to make an ankle-foot brace out of duct tape, Velcro, an Ace bandage and some basic splinting material.

“Many patients had no clothes and no shoes,” he said. “We would just have to improvise. Essentially, we were working as therapists, nurses, doctors, transportation aides, whatever.”

Conditions were challenging. The earthquake destroyed most of the hospital buildings, so many patients were treated in tents.

“We were the rehab department for the entire hospital, and basically, we were making it up as we went along,” Kenneway said.

Patient records were scarce, and when they did exist, were vague. “We didn’t know the diagnoses,” Smith said. “Most were written in Creole or French, or a combination of both. It was difficult to know what was going on.”

The lack of medicine and unsterile conditions meant patients who should have lived, died.

Smith recalled working with a young man in his early 20s who was recovering from abdominal surgery. “I had been working with him for a few days, just slowly walking, getting some exercise. We were half-way through, and he became faint. Just about the time we sat him down, he passed out. We couldn’t get his blood pressure, we couldn’t get his pulse. He died right there. You had this young, strong male who just passed away.”

The man died from a pulmonary embolism, which could have been prevented if doctors had blood thinners available.

Gordon also found himself treating diseases that have been eradicated in the United States. In one instance he treated an 18-day old baby boy who developed tetanus.

“When he was born, someone cut the umbilical cord with a rusty utensil,” he said. “He was rigid and curled up into a ball. But with some antibiotics and some range of motion treatment, he loosened right up.”

Still, among the death and devastation, Keilty ultimately found hope.

“The people are incredibly hopeful, and you feed off that,” he said. “Despite everything, those people always managed a smile. There was so much appreciation for whatever little we could do. You’re giving them hope, and they’re giving you hope back. It was pretty phenomenal.”

Interview requests:
If you would like to interview Keilty, Kenneway or Smith, please contact Carole Stasiowski at (508) 833-4006, or email her at

About the Haiti Relief Mission:
RHCI’s therapists were part of a coordinated effort with colleagues from the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. RHCI’s team joined physical and occupational therapists from Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Shaughnessey-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem, and Spaulding Hospital-Cambridge.

About RHCI:
The Rehabilitation Hospital of the Cape and Islands provides comprehensive inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation for Cape Cod, the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, along with the South Shore and South Coast regions. Inpatient programs specialize in caring for persons with stroke, brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, joint replacement surgery, amputation multiple trauma, and complex medical conditions. RHCI also offers extensive outpatient therapy and rehabilitation physician services in centers in Sandwich, Yarmouth, Orleans and Plymouth. RHCI for Children Eileen M. Ward Rehabilitation Center is a regional resource for children with a wide range of needs.

About Spaulding Rehabilitation Network:
Spaulding Rehabilitation Network is comprised of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Shaughnessey-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem, the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Cape and Islands in Sandwich, Spaulding Hospital-Cambridge, plus 21 outpatient centers from the North Shore to Orleans, and three skilled nursing facilities in the Boston area.


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