Trying to get help to Haiti proves daunting task
US. hospitals and healthcare systems late last week were scrambling to get much-needed medical resources into Haiti following the devastating earthquake that toppled many of the country’s structures, damaged healthcare facilities and left tens of thousands of people dead and thousands more in need of medical attention.
Their ability to send help was impeded by damage to Haiti’s communication systems, transportation ports and other infrastructure. “The logistics are just overwhelming,” said William Lois, surgery director at 326-bed Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, New York. On Jan. 15, Lois was in the process of organizing a large contingent of medical workers to go to Haiti with medical supplies. “There are people trapped in buildings who are dying or will die from infection. Right now what we need are surgeons—people who can suture, cut, and clean out eyes.”
Officials with several healthcare systems affiliated with churches that were already active in Haiti were on conference calls much of the day on Jan. 14 as they worked with their U.S.and Haitian-based partners in an attempt to sort out how best to get bandages, medicine
and crucial personnel into the region.
“It’s a fluid situation as of now,” said Samantha O’Lenick, spokeswoman for Orlando-based, 2,204-bed Florida Hospital, a member of Adventist Health System Sunbelt Health Care Corp.
The plan, O’Lenick said, includes working with the Seventh-day Adventist-affiliated Hopital Adventiste d’Haiti in Port-au-Prince, to determine what medical personnel and supplies are most needed. The hospital, according to a note on the Adventist Health International Web site, was still standing and operable after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that left much of the city in ruins.
Jackson Health System, Miami, was among the first U.S. hospitals to send physicians into Haiti, and the 1,858-bed facility was also treating Haiti residents transported to the U.S. for care. “They had received nine patients” as of Wednesday night, said Florida Hospital Association spokesman Rick Rasmussen.
Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, which serves a large Haitian-American community in New York, was in the throes of organizing its relief effort on Jan. 14 and Jan. 15. Lois, along with attending physician Henry Paul, was in the midst of organizing a biannual medical mission to Haiti when the quake hit, said spokeswoman Enid Dillard. “We’re just waiting on information about military support, because we’ll need that to safely go in,” she said. The 326-bed hospital’s plans were still being developed at deadline, but Lois said he had more than 80 physicians and other healthcare workers who had volunteered to go, and that a contingent of providers hoped to depart for Haiti sometime over the weekend. “We’re going to see if we can stagger the mission.” Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center was also organizing a delegation. Officials for the 679-bed hospital planned to send an emergency department physician and three nurses to work with the not-for-profit medical mission NOVA Hope for Haiti.
But hampered by jammed phone lines, limited Internet communication and inaccessible airports and seaports, most providers—even those with connections on the ground in Haiti—were still trying to assess how best to send medical assistance to the country. “Our leadership is still evaluating the situation,” said Abby Lowe, spokeswoman for Christus Health, a Catholic system based in Irving, Texas. “The info we got from the Catholic Health Association yesterday was that it’s still early and that moving large numbers of healthcare workers into Haiti is problematic. But we’ve had lots of offers from employees to go.”
St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, a 398-bed, Catholic-affiliated hospital in Boise, Idaho, was poised to send help, but was waiting on word from leadership at St. Damien Hospital, a Tabarre, Haiti-based children’s hospital sponsored by St. Alphonsus. St. Damien’s chief administrator and physician, the Rev. Rick Frechette, was in the U.S. when the quake struck, so St. Alphonsus officials were uncertain about the extent of the damage to the hospital, which is located right outside of Port-au-Prince. Frechette was en route to Haiti through the Dominican Republic at deadline, said Debbie Hamilton, coordinator of special projects for St. Alphonsus. “Right now, we’re trying to raise funds to help replace equipment and repair the hospital,” she said. “We have doctors and nurses on standby in case he says we need a team of doctors and nurses.”
Concerned that sending healthcare personnel to Haiti could overtax a country facing limited resources and a scarcity of safe areas for housing people, a number of U.S. providers were instead focused on raising funds to help pay for medical supplies. Sutter Health, Sacramento, Calif., said on Jan. 15 that it was donating $1.25 million in funds and supplies to the relief effort. Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, Christus Health and San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West all indicated they would make donations to Catholic groups already on the ground in Haiti.
A man cries outside the morgue of the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince last week as victims waited for help.
Lois: “Right now what we need are surgeons.”