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Final USVI Haitian Relief Flight Takes Off

Volunteers Erika Gomez (left) and Carmen Partridge sort packages of surgical socks.The last flight of USVI Haitian Relief volunteers took off a little after 8 a.m. Monday, with a traveling physical therapist, a logistics volunteer, a veteran organizer, two pilots and an angle grinder (more about that later).
The flight was donated by pilot George Miller—in his twin-engine Beechcraft 55 Baron—who took along copilot Henly Joseph. This makes Miller’s second volunteer flight.
It’s the fourth tour for organizer extraordinaire Amy Gurlea, who now almost counts Port-au-Prince as a second home. "I know so many people there, now," she says, rattling off a list of new friends.
Gurlea, Antilles School administrator, was on the initial flight Jan.16, not having any idea what to expect just four days after the quake. This trip is possible because the school is on spring vacation.
The team works out of the Community Hospital of Haiti, the mission’s base.
First-timer Swazi Clarity, who traveled with her laptop, will bring her logistics talent to bear on sorting out new procedures with the revived Haiti government.
About that angle grinder. Clarity and St. Thomas ground volunteer Joyce Waller found themselves at the Home Deport at 6 a.m. Monday in search of (successfully) angle grinder blades. "This isn’t how I thought I’d start my first trip," says Clarity, who nonetheless is game for the challenge.
Last thing Sunday evening, Clarity says, "We got a call – don’t leave without an angle grinder and blades. I’m having some construction work done on my home, and the contractor said, ‘Take mine,’ so all we needed was the blades."
The grinder is needed to cut re-bar on a unit being installed on the roof of the Haitian Community hospital, seven rooms which will house 14 volunteers, says founder Carmen Partridge. "Everybody has been sleeping on the roof under tarps or tents on the roof," she says. First estimates for the work were $20,000-plus, she said, but with volunteer help, Partridge says the job can come in under $3,000.
Traveling physical therapist Leah Coffman, a young woman with blond hair, green scrubs and a confident manner, explained her mission.
During the first weeks after the earthquake, hundreds of amputations were performed on Haiti’s children and adults, often with crude instruments. According to the attending physicians, many were surgeries that, in other circumstances, could have been prevented.
It’s Coffman’s job to identify these patients and apply what is commonly, if not gently, known as "stump-shrinkers" to the wounds. Pulling a packet of what looks like a ribbed ace-bandage, Coffman explains. "It’s a sock which will reduce the pain and the muscle contractions. In other words, she says, the wounds must be dressed correctly, so the "residual limb," the term for an amputated limb, will heal properly enabling it to be fitted for a prosthesis.
"If the wounds don’t heal properly, the amputees will experience what’s called contracture," Coffman said, referring to shortening of the muscle. She brought with her big duffle bags filled with the socks, along with giant rolls of the bandage material.
 Last Haiti flight volunteers include Pilot George Miller, four-year-old Cora Partridge (along for just the photo), Leah Coffman, Amy Gurlea and Swazi Clarity.Gurlea will help with to distribute the socks. "I think we had 600 surgeries in our hospital alone, she says, "though they weren’t all amputations. We’ll have to find the amputees in the tent communities, along with those still in the hospital."
Coffman, who is from Austin, Texas, says she was leaving her current post in Walla Walla, Wash., Friday headed home to Austin for a vacation, when she got a call for help from a St. Thomas colleague she had met working last year at Schneider Regional Medical Center. She arrived on St. Thomas Sunday. "For my vacation," she says, with a smile.
The St. Thomas Jet Center hangar was in its usual flurry of last-minute activity Monday, the volunteers meticulously weighing and prioritizing each ounce. There’s 23 pounds more they get to put in the nose. What’s the priority? "More socks," they almost all say, tearing into another large bag Coffman brought with her.
"OK, we’re set," says Gurlea, under the watchful eye of pilot Miller.
It’s time to board. As Partridge waved and watched Miller take off with the last of the volunteer flights, which began Jan. 16, she deferred comment for the time being. "I don’t know if I can tell you how I feel right now," she says, holding four-year-old daughter, Cora, in her arms. "Maybe a year from now."
Partridge takes little credit for the mission, other than serving as a catalyst. "It’s our community; they came together, they did everything. I think it’s always there. We come together; maybe it’s living on a small island."
Having tended to thousands of the acutely ill and wounded at the Haitian Community Hospital in
the first phase of the mission, Partridge said the hospital is now the "critically wounded patient."
She said Monday that the hospital has committed to accepting 20 volunteers over the next year.
A last cargo flight will go this weekend to bring the three volunteers back, Partridge says.

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