In the late afternoon on Tuesday, Jan. 12, the world’s attention was riveted by news of unanticipated catastrophe in the Caribbean. The island republic of Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, was struck by a massive earthquake — measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale — which devastated the city of Port-au-Prince, reducing much of the capital to ruin.
As reports from the shaken country detailed the magnitude of Haiti’s woes and estimates of the death toll reached into the tens of thousands, the Massachusetts General Hospital community moved swiftly to join the effort to bring aid to victims of the disaster. Fifty Mass General employees were dispatched to Haiti within 24 hours of the earthquake as part of two teams in the national relief effort, and the hospital has set up an emergency giving initiative that will benefit relief efforts, the Haitian Relief Fund (see below for details on donations). Some of those employees are part of the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), a group of professional medical personnel organized to provide rapid-response health care during a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Other Mass General physicians and nurses have been deployed as members of the International Medical-Surgical Response Team (IMSuRT), a mobile civilian medical and surgical unit well-equipped to assist local authorities at mass casualty sites domestically and overseas.
DMAT and IMSuRT teams have distinguished themselves internationally by assisting in emergency evacuations and delivering high-quality medical care in adverse environments, such as New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Mass General has also pitched in to support Partners in Health, a program based out of Brigham & Women’s Hospital which operates several hospitals in rural parts of Haiti.
Others yet joined the Project HOPE team. These volunteers will spend the next several weeks providing care to Haitians in need from U.S. Navy Ship (USNS) Comfort, a hospital-on-water dedicated to relief and humanitarian operations worldwide.
“Mass General has had a long-standing relationship with Navy-organized humanitarian missions since the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina,” says Larry Ronan, MD, an MGH internist and a member of the hospital’s Center for Global Health who is part of the USNS mission. “The 560 medical professionals working and volunteering aboard USNS Comfort operate a large tertiary care hospital on the ship. We’re able to transport the sickest people to and from land by helicopter, deliver excellent care to the injured both on and off shore and provide badly needed medical supplies to the earthquake victims.”
The 250-bed hospital ship can accommodate up to 1,000 patients; by the time the ship reaches Haiti, it will be equipped with four operating rooms, eight to 15 intensive care units, and CAT scanners and other state-of-the-art equipment. Dr. Ronan left Friday morning to join his colleagues aboard USNS Comfort, which will pass through Cuba and Guantanamo Bay on its route to the Port-au-Prince Bay.
A Community Mourns
Massachusetts has the third-largest Haitian community in the nation following Miami and New York City. Hundreds of Mass General staff hail from Haiti and have spent the hours since Tuesday evening anxiously awaiting news of loved ones back home. The hospital has made available international phone lines, cell phones and Internet access so employees are able to reach out to their family and friends in Haiti for information and updates. Because communication in and out of the country is sporadic at best, the wait for news is agonizing.
Marie-Banatte Simon, who left Haiti in 1994, serves as the supervisor of the Mass General Homemaker Program, providing coordinated home health aide services to patients in the community. Ms. Simon heard little news of her family until yesterday evening. She was notified by phone that her 31-year-old nephew died in the disaster, crushed in an office building that was reduced to rubble by the tremors.
“He had been trying to make calls from his cell phone for at least a day after the earthquake from inside the collapsed building, but it was chaos and there was no one to help,” Ms. Simon says. “I knew he was gone before I got the call, though. Before the phone rang, my back went cold and I felt heavy and depressed. It was hard to keep from crying.”
Still, Ms. Simon and her many Haitian colleagues at Mass General are holding on to hope. Their supervisors are making calls on their behalf, scouting for any available updates on missing family members in Port-au-Prince. The MGH Chaplaincy is offering the hospital chapel as a place of solace and support for those affected by this disaster. Father Gabriel Michel, a native of Haiti and an MGH chaplain, has brought in Haitian music, art and maps and will offer spiritual support.
“There are ups and downs — ups because we are being strong for one another and downs when we share our losses. MGH has been so supportive from the beginning,” says Ms. Simon. “We are powerless to do anything ourselves right now. But as we grieve, we hear that Mass General doctors and nurses are heading to Haiti and that means so much to us.”