On Jan. 13, Dr. Gary Cornette of Payson had just arrived in Antigua, Guatemala as a volunteer for Do Care International, a worldwide medical aid organization through which he planned to provide medical services for the Central American country's Mayan Indian population.
But Jan. 13 also was the day that a 32-second earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale struck Armenia, El Salvador, 65 miles off the shore and a few hundred miles from Cornette and his crew.
"We got our team together, 17 physicians in two vans, filled our suitcases full of medications, and drove the five hours to El Salvador," Cornette said.
The quake, which hit at 12:35 p.m. Eastern Time, is estimated to have killed 700 people, but Cornette thinks the number is much higher than that.
"When I was down there, I heard that 900 had been killed, and they were still finding bodies," he said. "I had never been to a disaster area before. Never.
"I couldn't believe the destruction. Most of the homes there are not very well built; they're mostly adobe bricks and plaster, with no reinforcement of the walls and wood windows. They just crumbled and tumbled.
"We set up our clinic in a convent that was untouched; it was built of reinforced concrete and brick. The nuns were feeding all the homeless people there, and we were seeing a whole gamut of serious medical problems. The Red Cross was there, the United Nations was there in the town ... but there wasn't anybody else doing the medical care. So we set up and worked 12- to 14-hour days."
By the time Cornette and his team arrived, they were no longer pulling survivors out of the rubble.
"They'd found them all," he said. "We were seeing the results of the injuries: many infected wounds, wounds that needed to be retreated, recleaned."
In addition to the earthquake injuries, the doctors found themselves treating a variety of chronic medical conditions in people who had never been able to afford a doctor's examination. People were suffering from malnutrition, infant diarrhea, parasites, iron deficiency anemia and abscessed teeth, Cornette said. "People were coming in with their whole families."
Aiding the Americas
Cornette a gastro-interologist subspecialist who moved here from Kansas City in September will officially join the staff at the Samaritan Family Health Center this Monday. But for the past five years he has performed volunteer work for Do Care International, a group of osteopathic physicians from four medical schools: The Phoenix Midwestern University, Michigan State University, Nova University in Miami, and the University of Health Sciences in Kansas City, where Cornette taught the gastrointestinal portion of the curriculum.
"This was our third year of going to Central America," he said. "We'd been going to Mexico for a number of years, but then it got difficult to take medications there. Do Care already had a clinic site set up in Guatemala, so we started going there to do clinics."
And that's how he ended up at the epicenter of disaster, treating earthquake survivors with nowhere else to turn.
But it wasn't the crumbled city or massive casualties that left the biggest impression on the doctor it was the country's armed militia.
"Besides all the people living in makeshift homes made of tarpons that lined all the streets, my strongest memory is of the El Salvadoran military," he said. "I've never been exposed to that many people walking around with automatic weapons. We even saw some of them as patients. They wouldn't remove their automatic weapons. That was a little nerve-wracking."
And the human devastation was tragic, Cornette said.
"(The soldiers) were taking these bodies and throwing them in mass graves because of the threat of disease," he said. "They weren't even identifying some of them. There were a lot of families that didn't know what happened to their relatives if they'd just been separated or if they were dead."
But for all of the fear and horror, Cornette said he left feeling satisfied his medical team made a real difference.
"One of our patients was a 19-year-old girl who had been near a wall when it fell over on top of her. It caught the back of her legs and injured her Achilles heel. She had deep wounds on the backs of her legs, and she was unable to walk. We saw her almost every day, and were able to get those wounds pretty well cleaned up. We gave her tetanus shots and antibiotics.
"It was quite nice to see the results after our five days of work on her," he said. "She was on her way to healing, thanks entirely to the injectable antibiotics we'd brought in."
Cornette said he never expected to witness the results of a natural disaster close-up, but the experience has forever changed his perspective.
"We become so complacent about health care here in the Unites States. We gripe all the time about it here, about how it could be better. But when you go to a place where there's virtually no health care delivery to the people who can't afford it no Medicare, no Medicaid your view changes. The people are gracious and happy to see (a doctor). They'll stand in line for hours and hours and hours to be seen. That really gives you a sense of accomplishment.
"And it's a heartwarming thing to just see them respond to the treatment."