Girl's 15 Days in Haiti Rubble Raises Survival Questions

Haiti's government called off search-and-rescue efforts four days earlier, yet rescuers found a Haitian teenager alive Wednesday, surviving against all odds after being trapped in the rubble for 15 days.

Sixteen-year-old Darlene Etienne had apparently been taking a shower when the earthquake struck and brought down rubble on top of her. When rescuers found her, she was weak, but very much alive.

"We were very surprised," Colonel Claude Fuilla, head doctor of the French Civil Protection team, told ABC News. "I was at our [headquarters] when a Haitian man walked in and said 'come quickly, we've found a young girl alive in the rubble.'"

Fuilla said the girl was stuck in a space barely bigger than her body. "It would be as if you were stuck between the front and the rear seats of your car, without the possibility to move... I'm deeply convinced she would not have made it another night."

The fact she was in the bathroom at the time of the quake may have saved her life, because she had access to small amounts of water.

But even so, experts say, her chances of surviving for that long still were very slim.

"She remarkably survived both her injuries and the prospect of dehydration after that many days ... [when] normally a person can die from dehydration in just three to four days," said Dr. William P. Bozeman, associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston Salem, N.C.

Scientists say a 150-pound person can only afford to lose about 20 percent of his or her water weight. The body sheds five or six cups of water a day. So without access to water, it's rare to last more than three or four days. After 14 days, a 150-pound person would have lost nearly 60 cups of water, or one-third of their water.

VIDEO: Hospitals struggle with limited supplies, facilities and trained staff.

Amazingly, Etienne still survived.

After a night of treatment on the French Navy hospital ship Sirocco, Dr. Evelyne Lambert, who has been treating Etienne there, said she is currently stable, drinking water and eating yogurt and mashed vegetables, according to the Associated Press.

Though rare, successful rescues many days or even weeks after a disaster call into question how long rescue teams can expect to find survivors.

How Long to Hold On to Hope

"There's no agreed on limit for when [to expect] no more survivors, as this case illustrates," Bozeman said, but "typically between two to five days you see fewer and fewer survivors, and after roughly seven days the teams may transition from search and rescue to body recovery."

Why Some Injuries Become Life-Threatening Under Rubble

For survivors like the teen recently found, major concerns are dehydration, crush injuries from the initial building collapse, and infections that might result when those injuries go untreated.

"What kills somebody who is simply trapped is dehydration -- most would probably die within the first week or so [because] you cannot get rid of the toxins from your body and your kidneys shut down," said Dr. Martin Schreiber, chief of trauma, critical care, and acute care surgery at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

"All your organs suffer, though the kidney is most vulnerable," he added.

If someone is young, healthy, and well-hydrated at the time of being trapped, the chances for a longer survival are better, Schreiber noted.

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