The need for disaster relief professionals often arises with staggering ferocity. Consider the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.  Like a curtain slowly drawing back, the wind and rain of the mammoth storm gradually subsided across the central Philippines in November 2013, revealing a swath of destruction and an urgent need for medical aid. Thousands of people were dead or missing and an estimated 600,000 were displaced.

International relief agencies issued a call for volunteers and in a matter of hours, Mass General disaster relief staff responded. Hilarie Cranmer, MD, MPH, director of disaster response at the MGH Center for Global Health, sent an urgent email to the heads of Mass General’s trauma and disaster units. “Dear Chiefs,” she wrote.” We are contacting you to let you know that we may be requested to deploy a medical team to the Philippines in response to Typhoon Haiyan.” More than 400 Mass General volunteers responded to the call.

That began a series of deployments into the heart of typhoon-damaged Philippines. Mass General doctors, nurses, pharmacists, security personnel and others clambered on foot past blocked roads and downed power lines into remote areas to reach people in need. They set up field hospitals and worked with local medical clinics. Within 15 days, the first team had treated more than 3,000 Filipinos impacted by Typhoon Haiyan.

A Professional Response to Disaster Relief

Disaster Relief: Typhoon Haiyan Philippines
Hundreds of Filipinos sought care and medications provided by a Mass General disaster relief team dispatched to the island nation in response to Typhoon Haiyan. (photo courtesy of Jacob Schafer – International Medical Corps)

“This is where the training, knowledge and skill that define a true professional medical response make a difference,” says Dr. Cranmer who, before recently going to the Philippines herself, did disaster relief work in post-tsunami Indonesia in 2004 and following the Haitian earthquake of 2010.  Now, it’s her job to assemble the right combination of experienced health professionals, equip them with everything they need to survive and coordinate their transportation and assignments with international aid agencies.

The first disaster relief team from Mass General to land in the Philippines was led by Miriam Aschkenasy, MD, MPH, deputy director of global disaster response, who worked in coordination with the International Medical Corps. “When you’re going to a major disaster you need to have good, experienced people on your team,” she says.

“When in distress, every man is our neighbor,” Mass General’s founders declared and, when disaster strikes, Mass General defines its neighborhood globally.

In the Philippines, her team trekked into difficult-to-reach locations to set up field clinics. The sheer number of people anxiously waiting to see a doctor posed a challenge, but the Mass General team knew how to handle it. To avoid a chaotic scene, they coordinated with the local medical and police officials  who determined the order in which patients should be seen based on a clear protocol.

A Global Mission Grounded in Tradition

One invaluable team member was Mass General pharmacist Carmen Berlin, RPh, a Filipino-American and a fluent speaker of the local language, Tagalog. Her ability to translate and explain the uses and side effects of medications to the local people and to discuss them with the Filipino medical staff proved to be a huge asset.

After a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, nearly 100 MGH volunteers mobilized a large-scale effort to go to the island nation to treat the ill and injured.
After a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, nearly 100 MGH volunteers mobilized a large-scale effort to go to the island nation to treat the ill and injured.

Such expertise comes from experience. The center’s global mission is grounded in a 204-year-old tradition that began when Mass General’s founders called for a new hospital to serve the poor:  “When in distress, every man is our neighbor,” Mass General’s founders declared and, when disaster strikes, Mass General defines its neighborhood globally.

After a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, nearly 100 MGH volunteers mobilized a large-scale effort to go to the island nation to treat the ill and injured and to help stem the death toll. They set up field hospitals, treated wounds and infections and helped reopen damaged community hospitals. The following year, they went to help treat people affected by a massive cholera epidemic.

When, in 2004, a tsunami overwhelmed coastal areas of 11 countries in Southeast Asia, killing an estimated 225,000 and displacing 1.2 million people, Mass General deployed 42 volunteers to help treat survivors from a base of operation on the USNS Mercy.

Domestically, Mass General disaster relief professionals participated in efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

Coordinated, Self-sufficient Disaster Relief

Domestically, Mass General disaster relief professionals participated in efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

In every case, the key to a successful disaster relief effort is coordinated professionalism, says David Bangsberg, MD, MPH, director of the MGH Center for Global Health. “What’s really needed is a consistent, standardized professional approach to disaster response in order to manage the many health issues that arise, particularly in resource-poor settings.”

The disaster relief volunteers from Mass General must be equipped and trained to be self sufficient and prepared to survive in dire conditions. That means having food, water, medicine, shelter, communications, personal medications and vaccinations. “Every person we send is equipped to be self reliant,” Dr. Cranmer says.

While each disaster is unique, trained health professionals know that the needs of the people affected by disaster are often quite similar. With advance planning and training—and crucial support from charitable gifts— the Mass General Global Disaster Response Program can continue to be  ready to provide care to people in need around the world.