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Haitians Under U.S. Treatment Are Often Separated From Families

The U.S. has brought medical services to thousands of Haitians. But a bureaucratic tangle has left some struggling to find loved ones who were taken away for treatment.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – In turning tents into sophisticated operating theaters and deploying a gleaming hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to the coast of Port-au-Prince, the U.S. government has brought needed medical services to thousands of Haitian earthquake survivors.

But after top U.S. doctors operate on severe injuries and treat infections, it is up to Haitian family members to see their loved ones through the long process of healing.

The ability of the U.S. system to connect with these family members nearly three weeks after the Jan. 12 disaster remains uncertain at best.

Navy helicopters often whisk the ill and injured from one medical site to another without documentation, leaving family members behind. As of last week there was no phone number for relatives to call to check on hundreds of patients being treated aboard the Comfort.

"Patients actually die from that, when they’re left alone with no family," said Nick Goldsberry, a registered nurse working at a tent hospital in Port-au-Prince with San Diego-based International Relief Teams.

Kevin Tweedy, a public information officer for a different field hospital in Port-au-Prince run by the U.S. National Disaster Medical System, struggled to find information for concerned relatives last week. On Tuesday he gripped a small cell phone to his ear. "People are getting upset," he told Keziah Furth, an American nurse volunteering as a liaison officer for the Comfort. "They’re beating on the gates. They want to know where their family member is."

The family of one of those patients spent last week in anguish. Gerd Belizaire, a 35-year-old engineer, was buried under rubble after the earthquake. Days after being rescued, he developed difficulty breathing, and the oxygen level in his blood dipped dangerously low. Doctors at the U.S. government field hospital put a tube in his throat to help him breathe, and one of Belizaire’s brothers, Ketler, scoured the city for a tank of oxygen.

Belizaire remained in critical condition, and a week ago Saturday the American doctors arranged urgent transport to the Comfort for intensive care. His wife, mother and brother bid him emotional goodbyes.

All week the family was unable to find out what happened to him. On Wednesday, a relative in the United States said he had reached someone by phone who informed him that Belizaire had died.

But Belizaire’s brothers and wife in Haiti were unable to confirm that information, even when I tried to help them navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth. They made daily visits back to the field hospital, and we placed phone calls to at least a half-dozen phone numbers on the Comfort. "It’s killing me," Belizaire’s wife, Giovanni, said on Wednesday.

On Sunday a relative, Dashley Beaubrun, said in an e-mail that the family had been told Thursday that Belizaire was alive, but had received no information since that time. A brother, Vladimir Gousse, said by phone that he was still awaiting news.

But a final call to a military public affairs officer on Sunday night revealed the worst. A patient matching Belizaire’s age, last name and with a similar first name, "Gend," had been recorded as deceased.

He had been dead on arrival to the Comfort, a day after he was picked up for urgent transport. Where he spent the intervening hours was unknown. According to the ship’s public information office, Belizaire’s body was released to the Haitian Ministry of Health more than a week ago. But the family has been unable to locate him.

"We looked at all the bodies, all the files, we can’t find his name," Belizaire’s wife said Monday. "I don’t know what to do. If he’s dead, where’s the body?"

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