October 29th, 2010
11:31 AM ET


By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

The tragic story of 22-year-old Saint Helene and her 15-month old daughter Cherie began like many here in Haiti. About two weeks ago, Saint Helene bought a bus ticket to Artibonite, a city about an hour north of Port Au Prince. Visiting with friends there last week, they had likely heard about the cholera outbreak that was unfolding in front of them. The good news: When Saint Helene and Cherie headed back to Port-au-Prince a few days later, they felt perfectly fine. Asymptomatic, as we say in the medical world. What Saint Helene or Cherie could not have known at that time is they were likely carrying the cholera bacteria back to the nation’s capital.

What happened next is not entirely clear. Saint Helene told us she was walking in Port-au-Prince, when she became suddenly ill. Within a couple hours, she was terribly dehydrated from diarrhea, and began to vomit. A good Samaritan brought mother and her young child to the closest hospital, where Saint Helene was taken to a back, somewhat isolated area and began treatment for cholera. She had an IV placed, and was given salts to replace the lost electrolytes. All of this happened within a few hours, relatively speedy, especially given the logistical challenges of Haiti.

And, with that - Saint Helene and Cherie illustrated several important lessons about cholera. Cherie, who was not sick, reminded us the vast majority of patients with the cholera bacteria actually don’t have any illness at all. Also, it was only several days after an exposure before Saint Helene began to feel ill. She was now getting simple, yet typically very effective treatment.

Health officials are very focused on people like Saint Helene and Cherie because of these reasons. There are many healthy people in Haiti who could be carrying the bacteria in their bodies, excreting it, and in the process unwittingly exposing countless others to the infection. It is possible that several more outbreaks could occur in areas all over the country over the next few weeks.

Saint Helene and Cherie taught us something else – just how deadly and heartbreaking this infection can be. Despite the efforts of the doctors and nurses at the hospital, 22-year-old Saint Helene died just a few hours before we went to visit her again. From the time she first felt ill to the time she passed away, was less than 24 hours. Sweet Cherie is doing well medically, but has also instantly become an orphan in this disaster-stricken country.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.