Doctor hears ‘the call’ from abroad

Doctor hears ‘the call’ from abroad

Loeffler describes his experiences volunteering in Haiti

It has been more than five years since Dr. Robert Loeffler has seen the little girl wearing the pretty dress, but she might as well be sitting in the room with us. His eyes shift to the left side of his office as he tells her story and I could tell he was reliving his experiences in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

“She was no more than 5 or 6,” said Loeffler. “And all I could think of was how in the hell can she be wearing such a nice dress with everything that is going on?”

As he drifts I debate whether or not to call him back to the present. After all, he asked for the interview subsequent to a recent article that left him unsettled. Loeffler fears it prompted many to believe he’s permanently retiring from his Key West practice and joining Doctors Without Borders on a fulltime basis — something has no intention of doing. And he also says the commentary focused too much on him and Doctors Without Borders — and not the spirit of the cause.

But as he speaks about his 2010 stint in Haiti (which was not a Doctors Without Border mission), I too find it increasingly difficult to separate the man from the cause. Loeffler’s seven-year affiliation with Doctors Without Borders, which landed him in war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Syria (to name a few), is an unusual choice for a skilled orthopedic specialist from the United States. One cannot help but wonder what motivates the 66-year-old surgeon to venture into places where the Taliban and ISIS are much too real. It is easy to project. Or assume. But Loffler insists he is not a religious fanatic, or an adrenaline junkie or a bleeding heart liberal. Instead, he says a little Haitian girl in a blood stained dress changed the way he interprets the world.

So, why does he do it? He quotes a passage from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”:

“True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power.” – Milan Kundera

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The little girl in the dress:

“When the earthquake hit everything fell. Haiti is made mostly of cement and they don’t use rebar or reinforcements. They just cut those corners. Most of the injuries were ‘crush injuries’ and I worked out of a big tent. The first patient I saw was a little a little girl with a dislocated elbow and bad fracture above it. Her father was with her and his hands were all cut up.  She was no more than 5 or 6 and all I could think of was how in the hell can she be wearing such a nice dress with everything that is going on?

She didn’t say a word as I treated her and neither did the dad. Like every kid I treated, she cried, but never screamed or yelled. They are so much more stoic in third world countries, often times blaming themselves for the tragedy. I tried to explain, ‘You didn’t do anything,’ but I don’t think she understood.

I later found out why the father’s hands were cut to pieces. When the quake hit he was at work. The little girl was at home with her three sisters and mother. They were all buried. All of them died except for the little girl, who was crushed right beside her mom. The dad dug her out with his bare hands and brought her to me.

And there was one after another with similar afflictions. I would look up and see all of these horrible injuries and people dying there, literally all of the time. It’s just overwhelming and it paralyzes you. So I said, ‘Ok, I’m going to take care of this little kid in front of me, and the next one … and just try to do the best I can for that person.’

It did change my outlook on life. Once I treated them there was no place for them to go. They would just go outside and sit. There is just no comparison to what we are used to here. But after a week or so there I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’

After the first article was written on me, many people made comments about me like, ‘Why doesn’t this guy treat those in need back here at home?’ But as Americans, we don’t know, even with the horrors of Katrina, what it’s like to be in a situation where the government is never going to come. In Haiti, there was no government. There was no fall back. No Medicare. No emergency room where you had to be treated like in the U.S. That’s the difference. The value of me over there is so much higher than me over here.

I guess it just goes back to why you want to become a doctor. I was never drawn to the financial side of it. Some guys can take themselves too seriously. I always would tell my residents, you have to take your job seriously but never take yourself too seriously. Because when you mix the two up you risk becoming a real jerk.  But Key West is my home. My office will be here. I just want to get to a place where I can do this more.

— Dr. Robert Loeffler

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