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Originally published January 14, 2010 at 9:49 PM | Page modified January 15, 2010 at 10:37 AM

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Seattle couple in Haiti suddenly become medical workers

Jesse Hagopian and his wife, Sarah Wilhelm, of Seattle, were in Haiti when the earthquake hit. Suddenly, they found themselves administering first aid to victims.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Jesse Hagopian is an unemployed Seattle teacher with no experience in mending broken bones. That all changed Tuesday evening as he ripped up bed sheets and placed splints on the fractured bones of the earthquake victims in Haiti who found their way to the Villa Creole in the Petionville suburb outside of Port-au-Prince.

Hagopian worked under the direction of an American medic whom he knew only as "J.H." After the earthquake, J.H. took the lead in the emergency first-aid effort in the hotel's circular front drive.

"People started coming with a broken leg, a broken arm," Hagopian said in a Thursday telephone interview with The Seattle Times. "Then the floodgates started to open, and we had truckloads of people show up. I had to do a whole lot of procedures, and the injuries started getting worse."

Hagopian, 31, had arrived in Haiti on Sunday along with his wife, Sarah Wilhelm, a public-health educator at the University of Washington who was going to spend 10 days working on an AIDS curriculum. Hagopian was laid off last year from his Madison Middle School teaching job. His main task while in Haiti was to take care of their 1-year-old son, Miles.

They survived the initial quake by taking cover under a hotel door frame. After the violent shaking ended, they went outside. Though part of the hotel collapsed, Hagopian said, all the guests appeared to have escaped without injury, including J.H., who soon drafted the couple to help care for the wounded, while Miles somehow was able to sleep nearby through most of the long, difficult night.

Hagopian said that J.H. "beyond a doubt" was a hero as he created the makeshift clinic without medical supplies. In addition to the broken bones, people had serious head injuries, chunks of flesh missing or gouged eyes.

He also praised the hotel's employees for handing out water from a special reservoir, and offering the linens to care for the wounded.

Hagopian and his family were able to find shelter later that night at a friend's house that had withstood the quake.

They returned to the hotel the next day and continued to treat the wounded, including an 8-year-old boy who died in the schoolteacher's arms.

"It was really disturbing," Hagopian said. "The boy's dad had gotten out of the house, but the boy hadn't, so the father started digging and finally got him out."

But by the time the boy reached the makeshift clinic, he could not be saved.

On Thursday, for the first time, Hagopian and his family ventured into the streets of downtown Port-au-Prince. They found the streets lined with bodies of men, women and children.

"The smell of the bodies are horrible because it's the third day, and they are starting to decay," Hagopian said. "Bulldozers were coming in, raising the bodies up and putting them in the back of trucks."

He and his family hope to be evacuated, but they're not sure when that will happen. When they return home, they want to help raise money for the rescue and recovery effort.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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