The Mass General director of Global Disaster Response who spoke at the 2014 Women In Global Health Symposium discusses how MGH's Global Disaster Response got it starts right at home.

In the second of our interview series with the keynote speakers from this year’s Women in Global Health symposium, we speak to Hilarie Cranmer, MD, the first director of Global Disaster Response at Massachusetts General Hospital, on how the initiative’s international outlook all started local.

Hilarie Cranmer, MD, Mass General director of Global Disaster Response
Hilarie Cranmer, MD, Mass General director of Global Disaster Response

For Massachusetts General Hospital, it all began in 1811 with a letter to the community declaring: “When in distress, every man is our neighbor.” This founding principle has been realized over the years through the hospital’s response to natural and man-made disasters. Following a growing demand from hospital staff to assist with humanitarian work overseas, Mass General sought a leader who could orchestrate a successful formula of international disaster response, without diminishing the hospital’s capacity to serve those locally in the community. Enter Hilarie Cranmer, MD, Boston native and Mass General’s first director of Global Disaster Response.

For Dr. Cranmer’s distinguished humanitarian work credentials range from disaster response missions in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

“With disaster response, it’s really those first few days that can make all the difference between life and death.”

“We at Mass General work with a number of international organizations, from the International Rescue Committee to Oxfam, to create a team that can help immediately on the ground,” she explains. “With disaster response, it’s really those first few days that can make all the difference between life and death.”

Sensitivity and compassion

Working in a realm of utter uncertainty, the Mass General ethos remains a resounding constant for Dr. Cranmer. “We’ve set a goal to make a difference and to instill a sense of hope on the ground for those affected by disasters, so they can realize that people do care about them and they will get through this,” she says. Few cases could better underscore this than Mass General’s 2013 mission to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

In the aftermath of one world’s strongest storms, sensitivity proved to be the defining tenet of disaster response philosophy. “We didn’t go into the area to replace doctors and nurses,” she explains. “We were going there to support an overwhelmed but mostly functional system.”

In fact, with the Philippines renowned for its strong health service, there was a recognition that the biggest problem wasn’t going to be healthcare. “It was going to be how to care in a supportive way for a population who can’t get access to medicine, food or shelter,” she says.

With that, operations swung into motion with Dr. Cranmer and her emergency response teams delivering support in the devastated regions of Cebu and Panay.  They also  pioneered post-disaster boat trips to remote islands devastated by the storm. Over 8000 people were treated by her team in all.

“We as an organization need to think about how to get money and supplies into women-headed households, while also tackling issues like reproductive health and family planning.”

A program to serve and empower

According to Dr. Cranmer, Typhoon Haiyan is just one example of how programs like Women in Global Health highlight the need for a female-focused international aid strategy.

“If you look at disasters, both natural and man-made, 80% of those displaced are women and children,” she explains. “So we as an organization need to think about how to get money and supplies into women-headed households, while also tackling issues like reproductive health and family planning.”

That female focus also mirrors itself within the Mass General disaster response teams. Twenty of 27 team members were women. “This isn’t by hook or crook,” Dr. Cranmer elaborates, “our teams are primarily composed of nurses, which is a largely female-driven field. Therefore, of those who respond, most are women.” According to Dr. Cranmer, getting women caring for women is one of the biggest priorities for Women in Global Health. “It’s really important.  We’re working in societies which need particular attention to women’s health.  It’s also something which empowers.”

“Here at Mass General, we’re building a program where we’re delivering not only a professional response to women and children, but also effective training and support while we’re in the field to leave a deeper stronger footprint for those who remain.”

A stronger focus – a deeper footprint

With that adage, Dr. Cranmer continues on her endless journey to champion the field of disaster management.  A training conference to Melbourne in May is quickly followed by a visit to Uganda in June in a schedule that remains at the constant mercy of an impending catastrophe.

Throughout she remains resolutely passionate on the program’s successes and goals and how they’re best achieved. “You know, 90% is not the sexy stuff,” she surmises. “It’s actually all the preparedness, understanding protocols, and all of us working together to figure out the best response model before disaster strikes again.”

“Here at Mass General, we’re building a program where we’re delivering not only a professional response to women and children, but also effective training and support while we’re in the field to leave a deeper stronger footprint for those who remain.”