Lindsay Pruis, a nursing student from Eagan, peered at the mangled foot of a Haitian boy. It looked as if the tiny foot had exploded, bones flayed in all directions.

Pruis had been caught in the Haiti earthquake during a weeklong mission trip and soon found herself thrust into the role of a doctor. Amid the blood and broken bones, she had little more than antibiotic cream, Tylenol and tweezers with which to work.

Pruis tried to shut out her horror as she decided whether the crushed foot could be saved.

"I saw things that I didn't think I'd ever have to see," Pruis said in a recent interview from Rochester, where she returned to her studies three weeks ago. "I probably saw more death in those four or five days than I will see in the rest of my nursing career."

Pruis, who turns 21 in a week, has been speaking to church and other groups about the earthquake to help raise awareness and donations for Haiti.

She was one of 40 missionaries who went to the impoverished country to help with an orphanage and building projects led by several churches and Mission E4, a Christian charity based in Massachusetts.

It was just before dinnertime on Tuesday, Jan. 12, when the earth split open. Pruis and her fellow missionaries were at the epicenter of the quake.

She was riding in a bus with about 15 others returning from a jungle village to their villa compound in Carrefour, near one of four locations where they were working.

The bus had climbed up a steep hill bordered on one side by a tall wall that blocked a deep dropoff. On the other side of the narrow street were buildings. Street vendors packed both sides.

Suddenly, a wall smashed down in front of the missionaries. The bus shook beneath them.

"The wheels were being lifted off and it felt like we were in huge waves, rocking on a boat," Pruis recounted. "People were screaming everywhere and running everywhere, not knowing what to do. It was absolute chaos and panic."

The quake lasted about 30 seconds, leaving stores and homes flattened.

"We saw a girl running, missing a hand. We saw children dead in the streets. We saw the wall fall down on a number of people. So we were very scared."

The missionaries who had been on the bus made their way back to their villa, where they gathered and wept with the others who'd returned. Some of their group hadn't made it back. But eventually they all did.

Many of the missionaries had narrowly avoided being killed -- some had escaped from a hospital just as it caved in, others had been on another bus that moved just in time to avoid a collapsing utility pole -- but not one of the 40 missionaries who had been out in four different locations that day was hurt.

That night, they huddled with Haitian acquaintances on a basketball court, armed guards protecting them, and prayed. Some of the Haitians began singing "How Great Thou Art" in Creole, and the Americans joined in, singing in English. On they went throughout the night, singing and praying.

In the darkness outside the villa there was much wailing and weeping from the people passing by. Yet there also came shouts of "Hallelujah, merci, Jesi!"-- "Thank you, Jesus!" -- from those grateful to have survived.

The sun rose, and the missionaries learned from their leader, Scott Long, that they might not get out of the country for another week.

More need than ever

"Scott told us that we were stuck there, but we weren't just going to sit in a corner and be scared and not do anything," Pruis recalled. "We were there for a purpose, to help people, and now, more than ever, we had to fulfill that purpose."

Half the group left for neighboring Leogane to assess damage to an orphanage and school and help those children. Pruis joined the other half in forming a medical team. In her third year of nursing at Luther College and in clinical studies at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Pruis had more training than anyone else in her group.

They set out for the 20-minute walk to Port-Au-Prince. They had to step over bodies along the way. The group carried one suitcase and two backpacks of medical supplies.

Tremors continued, and Pruis was terrified. Everywhere, hands came out of the crowd to touch her as the desperate wounded sought medical care from the Americans.

She used saltwater to clean debris from gashes and torn sheets and sticks to set broken bones. Pruis treated one woman whose ribcage had been cracked open. As she cleaned the wound, she saw the woman's beating heart. The woman's eyes opened as she drifted in and out of consciousness.

"She would look straight into my eyes and say, 'Merci.' "

Pruis tended to the boy with the split foot. He was 6 or 7 years old and had arrived in a wheelbarrow, carried by a couple of men. His wailing father was so distraught that it was the mother to whom Pruis broke the news: The foot had to be amputated.

Pruis prayed as she tended to screaming babies, some with protruding bones. A United Nations doctor joined their group on Wednesday. On a porch near Pruis, he amputated a man's arm with a household saw and no pain medication as a crowd watched.

The next day, a local woman doctor with whom Pruis worked amputated children's smashed fingers and gangrenous toes, as Pruis worked nearby on other patients, mostly babies who could fit atop a small table.

"Looking back now, I don't really know how we found the strength. Maybe a mix of adrenaline and God helping us get through it," Pruis said.

On Saturday, Jan. 16, she boarded one of the planes that Hendrick Motorsports of Charlotte, N.C., had sent to Haiti. She returned to Minnesota and by Sunday morning, she was speaking to her father's church -- Peace Church in Eagan.

"There were so many people that affect you -- the boy in the wheelbarrow, the little girl with the fingers amputated, that really get under your skin," Pruis said.

"I wonder every day if they're alive, or if they became infected. You can only pray that they're OK."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017