The great equalizer

The great equalizer

In reaching out to help Haiti, members of Team Broken Earth discover they often heal themselves

If you could travel back in time to January 11, 2010, you’d probably be amazed at how little you knew of Haiti. If you thought of it at all, it was probably in relation to its proximity to popular sun spots in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

That was on the 11th. Now fast forward 24 unforgettably tragic hours to January 12, 2010: the day a 7Mw earthquake ripped the impoverished country apart. More than 200,000 Haitians died instantly while life for millions of injured became a living nightmare.

The receding aftershocks were quickly followed by a tsunami of attention. Only two hours’ flight from Miami, global media assembled on the ground in the capital city and earthquake epicentre of Port-au-Prince almost immediately. Under the most regrettable of circumstances, Haiti was suddenly top of mind with people around the world.

Dr. Andrew Furey, associate professor of surgery with Eastern Health in St. John’s, N.L., recounts how the images of rubble and death were suddenly right there, in his own living room. “Watching the frank devastation of what was happening in Haiti, I knew there had to be at least two or three seriously injured people for every person who died. And I knew that the medical system there had to be in similar distress.”

He couldn’t be a passive observer for long. Within a few months, he and his wife Allison (an emergency room doctor), along with orthopedic resident Will Moores, made the trip to Haiti.

While it was rewarding to know they’d made a tangible difference, it was also dissatisfying. They felt they could have accomplished more.

“When we arrived, we were working with people we didn’t know, and it took a couple of days to get used to working with them. We felt it would have been more efficient and effective if we had arrived with a group of professionals who were familiar with each other—a selfcontained team who could hit the ground running.”

It’s that concept which ultimately led Dr. Furey, along with reconstructive surgeon Dr. Art Rideout and anesthesiologist Dr. Jeremy Pridham, to organize Team Broken Earth. Though it started as a single team from Newfoundland and Labrador, this volunteer task force is now composed of physicians, nurses and physiotherapists from across Canada who are committed to delivering and improving healthcare in Haiti. They give in the most altruistic sense of the word, donating their vacation time and paying their own transportation costs so they can take part in each week-long mission.

Mentally, physically and metaphorically, these missions are a difficult journey.

Volunteers undergo months of extensive screening and preparation so they’ll know what to expect when they arrive. The hospital in Port-au-Prince, once a private residence, is a typical health care facility for a developing country: not enough medicine; shockingly high volumes of patients; outdated or non-existent equipment; no access to routine blood work; unreliable electricity. The visiting medical staff will sleep on bunk beds in dorm rooms, draped by mosquito netting. They’ll experience dehydration and dream of functioning bathroom facilities. They’ll have issues trying to communicate with local medical staff through interpreters. They’ll see armed guards at the gates of their work site, and watch mothers sleeping on the floor next to sick babies. They’ll encounter diseases that are almost unheard of in North America and work to correct physical abnormalities that are routinely dealt with at a very young age in Canada. And they’ll smell the stench of poverty from the millions of people living in tent cities on less than a dollar a day.

None of it is easy, but Furey notes that one of the biggest challenges is perspective. “We don’t want any cowboy attitudes, and we can’t think of ourselves as riding in to save the day. We tell our people that it’s the same as if they were suddenly dropped in the middle of John Hopkins hospital. It’s their hospital, not our hospital. They have a different way of doing things, a different way of charting things, a different language. It’s not our place to change the way things are done.”

Sometimes, however, Team Broken Earth members are able to provide a service that’s almost impossible otherwise. A huge “for instance” is Dr. Art Rideout’s cleft lip and palate reconstructive surgery.

The condition itself, with genetic and nutritional causes, can be found throughout the world and was once very common in Newfoundland. For babies born without a full lip or palate, Dr. Rideout can give them back their smile, restore their ability to eat and talk. With a 45-minute surgery, they gain the ability to blow kisses. “It’s a very good feeling,” Rideout says modestly. “When we walk out of the operating room and the nurse carries the baby to the parents, and they can see right away the difference we’ve made, it’s a powerful moment.”

Think about that for a second. This is a country where every day is an unavoidable struggle. From the moment they wake up until they fall asleep, Haitians are working to stay alive. They’re not sure they can trust free medical care. They can’t even process the idea of free food. To give a child something as modest as a soccer ball is a bounty equivalent to an entire year of North American holiday gifting. Now imagine the reaction to transforming that child’s life and you’ll have some idea why Dr. Rideout describes it as “addictive.”

Satisfying as this is, he says his less celebrated role as an educator is equally important. “They need more surgeons doing this surgery. There’s a constant demand and not a constant supply of people who can do it.” Having as many as 17 health professionals in the operating room, showing them how he conducts the delicate facial operation without damaging nerves, is an important step towards advancing Haiti’s medical system.

Jackie Connolly is another Team Broken Earth member who has seen first-hand the transformative power of education. But while the simulation coordinator with the Janeway Children’s and Women’s Health Program has taught CPR to upwards of 100 people on some of her missions to Haiti (she’s been on eight so far), she says she has learned more than she has taught.

Recalling the devastation of her first trip (she was one of the original team members), she remembers how upset she was over the collapsed buildings and the suffering and the children living in the streets. “These people had nothing,” she says, “or so I thought. Yet every morning, they started their day with a 6 a.m. service in the hospital corridor, giving thanks for everything they had. It was the most phenomenal thing I’d ever seen.

“There was so much that needed to be done, that it seemed insurmountable at times. I was crying about it almost every day until one of my coworkers in Haiti spoke to me about it. He said, ‘You have to be happy with what you can do in Haiti, not be sad about what you can’t do.'”

Connolly has quite a bit to be happy about. Both she personally and Team Broken Earth in general have made a measurable difference in Haiti. They’ve saved thousands of lives and influenced even more. One of those people was 22 when they first met him; he was completely paralyzed except for his eyeballs. With the correct diagnosis and treatment, he recovered. Last January, he graduated from an air conditioning and refrigeration program and Miss Jackie, as he calls her, was there to see him accept his diploma. “He introduced us (Team Broken Earth) to everyone, called us his angels. No one had any tissues left,” she says.

Asked what most impresses her about Haiti, Connolly can’t pick a single attribute. Rather, there are many. She speaks of the people and their resilience, their gratitude for every blessing and their powerful sense of family. She references their care for family members in hospital, describing how they will stay in the hospital for the entire duration of the stay. And she admires the children who value learning so much that they will walk more than an hour to get to school, arriving with their uniforms still spotlessly clean. “The parents here make huge sacrifices for their children to get an education, because they know that’s the path to a better future.”

And that’s just what Jackie Connolly has observed from her work at the hospital in Port-au-Prince. Emergency room physician Dr. Dick Barter leads Team Broken Earth’s rural outreach program. Started in 2013, the rural team is essentially a travelling clinic that goes from town to town, setting up their temporary practice in churches, schools and huts. They’ve even set up benches and sat on the ground when that’s all that’s available. He describes eating meals hand-cooked by village women over charcoal fires and sleeping in tinroofed shacks while a lightning storm dances overhead.

Before Dr. Barter’s outreach program, the main focus was always on the hospital in Port-au-Prince, where the team treats more than 500 patients during a typical one-week visit. Moving 25 people through the remote parts of Haiti was not always easy, but by the end of their first trip, more than 450 children and almost 300 adults in remote regions had received medical treatment thanks to Broken Earth’s volunteers.

He and the medical residents who accompany him are armed with their eyes, ears, stethoscope and tongue depressor. Without the luxury of an xray machine or blood test, they’ll treat conditions like malnutrition, infection, pneumonia and malaria. “Being a portable pharmacy, we bring antibiotics, malaria medication, deworming treatments.” Deworming? “Yes, all the children have to get dewormed if they haven’t had it done in three months,” he says matter of factly.

These immediate treatments, however, are just a small part of Dr. Barter’s larger plan. He’d like to see a self-sustained health network in place across the country with clinics staffed by Haitian doctors. “This was originally about patching up people after the earthquake, but it’s turned into so much more than that.”

Andrew Jarvie, an anesthesiologist with the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, is another Team Broken Earth member who is confident their efforts are assisting the recovery of Haiti’s healthcare system as well as the people they treat. Jarvie notes that it’s not possible for teams of visiting doctors to provide sustainable healthcare in Haiti over the longterm, and that’s why providing classes and training to local staff is such a vital component to the Team Broken Earth mission. “The courses are well attended,” he says. “I’m glad we’re going there. I think we’re making a world of difference and we’re appreciated by the people of Haiti as they work to get their country back on track. The future ultimately looks good for Haiti.”

Chad Coles, an orthopedic trauma surgeon, also with the QEII hospital, was a team leader for Broken Earth on two missions with the group from Halifax. On the fi rst trip, the team was in Haiti less than 30 minutes when called to work on an off-duty police offi cer who had been shot, he says. “We hadn’t even had a tour of the facilities, yet.”

While a gunshot wound might be difficult enough to treat in Canada, it’s far more of a challenge in Haiti, where resources are minimal and staff are forced to rely on their instincts and ability to improvise as much as possible.

The lack of supplies is also one of the most memorable aspects of his two trips to Haiti. “You come home from something like that and you get a better appreciation for what we have here. There’s an awareness of how fortunate we are. It makes you careful of how you spend local resources after an experience like that.”

Things we take for granted here, such as food, clean dressings and even bed sheets are not provided for patients in Haiti, says Coles. People being treated in the hospital are dependent on their families to provide these basic necessities as well as food. If there is no family available, then hospital staff will do the best they can to help. “There was a donation table set up. On the second trip people knew to pack more supplies like blankets for the orphanage and the hospital.”

Coles had never worked with a global surgery effort before joining Team Broken Earth, but found the experience incredibly rewarding for many reasons. He encourages anyone with the time or resources to support Broken Earth’s efforts in Haiti.

Broken Earth volunteers and organizers are always looking for new and better ways to help the people of Haiti improve their healthcare system. In 2013, the organization partnered with the Haitian state university and general hospital on a telemedicine project. This will enable Canada’s experts to share their knowledge through a series of lectures on current medical techniques and best practices. Teleconferences can be linked to classrooms around the world and provide students and medical professionals with a vast amount of experience and knowledge they would not otherwise have available.

Travelling to Haiti is likely the most unsettling, traumatic, stressful, exhilarating, rewarding experience that Team Broken Earth members will ever face. Is it any wonder they clamour to go back again?

1 Comment to “The great equalizer”

  1. Keep up the amazing work! We are blessed to have such amazing volunteers!

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