On Tuesday January 12, 2010 at approximately 4:50 in the afternoon an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck Haiti. Its epicenter was located ten miles west of Port-au-Prince, the most densely populated city in Haiti with 2 million people. In a matter of moments half of the homes and businesses of this city were either completely destroyed or severely damaged. In the ensuing hours and days, despite the heroic effort of many Haitian citizens and international aid workers who came in from around the world, tens of thousands of Haitians died. All told, over 240,000 Haitians perished; another 200,000 were injured, many with life-long crippling injuries; and 1,000,000, half the population of the city, have been left homeless.
In the days that followed, I watched the terrifying and moving images on TV coming out of Haiti, and I was motivated to help in any way possible. Being a family physician, broadly trained in all aspects of medicine (with additional training in obstetrical surgeries), I offered to volunteer with several medical aid and relief organizations, some with long standing ties in Haiti (The Albert Schweitzer Hospital, Partners in Health, and Medishare), and other agencies that had never worked in Haiti (New York City Medics).
Miracles Avenue, Port-au-Prince.
Being new to rescue and relief work, I was under the impression that one of these several organizations would quickly contact me and establish my departure date. However, this was not the case. The first priority for medical personnel was the surgical specialties: orthopedic, trauma, and neurosurgeons, as well as anesthesiologists. The organizations that I contacted were quick—and rightly so—to ask if volunteers had any experience working in a rescue or relief effort. As I would come to learn all too quickly, relief work is far different from the medical practice that I was accustomed to in the States.
After a fortnight without any response to my offers of help, I inquired why I was not being “called up to service.” To this question I was told by all of the organizations that each had lists of volunteer medical providers that were “hundreds of people long.” This was both frustrating and reassuring to hear. While I realized that I might not be able to help Haiti first-hand, I felt a sense of pride in my fellow healthcare providers for their willingness to volunteer in Haiti.
My first opportunity came when I received a call from New York City Medics, a group of paramedics who inaugurated their relief work during the 2005 Pakistani earthquake. This organization’s website states that its volunteers, due to the kindness of their employers and families, are able to take time off from work and home at a moment’s notice to dedicate themselves fulltime to joining teams in the field & providing medical care.
After a flurry of calls and emails and with the help of generous colleagues willing to take up my duties at the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, I was set to depart from NYC and fly to the Dominican Republic. From there it would be a twelve-hour bus ride to Port-au-Prince. However, one week before my departure I was told the departure date had been advanced by three days. Unfortunately, I, unlike the majority of volunteers, was unable to change my schedule on this short notice, and I had to decline this opportunity.
At this point I became resigned to the fact that I was not going to be able to serve in Haiti. However, a week later a fellow Albert Schweitzer Fellow contacted me; she put me in touch with the Greater Washington Haitian Relief Committee that was looking for volunteers. Through this organization I was able to secure confirmation as a volunteer with Medishare, an NGO that has been working in Haiti for the past fifteen years. It had teamed up with the University of Miami and was chartering two flights a week to Port-au-Prince to help staff their temporary hospital.
Street scene, Port-au-Prince.
Once again, my employer, our medical director, and tireless scheduler, all with the same belief that emphasizes the importance of service, quickly made the needed changes in my schedule that enabled me to go. And equally important, my family once again jumped in, committed to this important work.
In conversations with family, friends, casual acquaintances, and even complete strangers, about my going to Haiti, one universal and heartfelt comment came through, “…thank you for going to Haiti.” A nurse staffing the urgent care clinic at the Miami airport even pushed medical supplies into my arms to take to Haiti while she sent me off with a warm, “God Bless You!”
This outpouring of goodwill and support buoyed my spirits, but I did feel some apprehension as well. Even though I have done a fair amount of international medical work in developing countries, namely, Nepal, I have never been part of a relief effort where certain proficiencies that go beyond my primary care skills are needed. I would also learn that the physical and emotional toll on providers in a crisis like Haiti is immense and unrelenting.