Liz Durham gets tears in her eyes when she talks about her experience volunteering at a makeshift hospital in Port-au-Prince.

Durham, a physical therapist from Belfast, spent the last week in February working mainly with children injured during the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital city. Many of the children were recuperating from amputations that were necessary after they were pulled from the wreckage, while others were healing from major fractures and head trauma.

The Belfast woman traveled to Haiti with a group of 29 other medical professionals from Flagstaff, Ariz., on a program called Medishare through the University of Miami. Durham’s brother, Dr. John Durham, an orthopedic surgeon at Flagstaff Medical Center, organized the trip.

The group consisted of professionals from many branches of medicine: operating room, intensive care, trauma, respiratory, podiatry and physical therapy.

They arrived in Haiti at night and unloaded their baggage from the plane themselves and piled it onto a cattle truck to be taken to where the group would be staying. Durham said they slept under tents with mosquito nets.

After a quick orientation the next morning, they “hit the ground running,” she said. Durham estimated there were about 200 medical personnel volunteering at the location.

As Durham described the hospital, which was set up next to the airport in Port-au-Prince, one cannot help but imagine a scene similar to that of the television show “M*A*S*H.”

“It was under a tent, it was wild,” Durham said of the hospital.

Initially following the earthquake the hospital was set up directly on the ground, but by the time Durham and the Arizona team arrived, the tent had plywood flooring.

“They had come a long way with coming from nothing,” she said.

The tent was divided into various hospital units by plastic walls and patients’ hospital beds were cots. Durham described one area in the tent where three or four surgeries could be seen going on at the same time.

“It was kind of like civil war,” she said.

The doctors and nurses all did an amazing job with what they had to work with, given that it was not the most sterile environment for surgeries, Durham said.

At night many people would come in with gunshot wounds and other trauma.

A 55-year-old man came in who had been shot while someone was trying to hijack his vehicle. He ended up being paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the wound, she said.

When the bullet hit him, the man ended up crashing the vehicle into a 17-year-old boy driving another vehicle and the teen ultimately had his left leg amputated from the knee down.

The two men were both recovering at the hospital and their beds were near each other. Durham said with tears in her eyes, the older man kept telling the teen how sorry he was for what he had done and kept apologizing for ruining the boy’s life.

It was a heartbreaking experience, she said. It was just amazing to her that the older man, who had been through a life-changing ordeal himself, was so compassionate toward the teen and so very thankful to the medical staff, Durham said.

After she returned home, one of the nurses sent her an article written about the man, and he was a longtime driver for an orphanage and was driving one of the vehicles owned by the facility when he was injured.

One of the highlights of her trip was having the chance to take the children outside, which was the first time they had been outdoors in six weeks.

She worked with one boy who had a head injury and had no movement on one side of his body. The day she took the children outside, as part of their therapy, they took turns tossing balls into a basket. Durham said the boy, who never spoke the entire time she was there, grinned for 15 minutes straight.

Some of the patients, both adults and children, did not have any family and others, she said, when they were discharged from the hospital had no place to go. Some parents were staying at the hospital with their children.

Many of the children went on to a rehab hospital in Haiti. Some parents were resistant to sending their children to the rehab hospital because they had other children at “home,” which Durham said was a tent in the city.

“I have never had the opportunity to work and be with such an amazing group of medical professionals. I was honored to be part of this team and to push the limits with all of you! It is a bit strange to be home where things have been carrying on as ‘normal,'” Durham wrote on a blog set up by the group to share photos and experiences.

This is the first time Durham, who is employed as a clinical specialist with Genesis Rehab Services, has ever volunteered for such a mission, but it is something she hopes to do again.

“It was an amazing trip. I hope to go back,” Durham said.

Two additional trips have been organized for April and May and she said if she can make it happen, she’d like to go back in May.

The Republican Journal reporter Kim Lincoln can be reached at or at (207) 338-3333.