Disaster Preparedness Month brings reflections on Haiti

Photo by Nelson Aquino

In honor of September being Disaster Preparedness Month, Children’s physician Deb Weiner, MD, PhD, looks back on her experiences as one of the early responders to the January 2010 earthquake that devestated Haiti.

I remember that we were extremelty busy from the moment our National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) International Medical Surgical Response Team (IMSuRT) arrived at the NDMS Gheskio field hospital in Port-Au-Prince, just days after the Jan 2010 earthquake. We were there to relieve colleagues from Children’s Hospital Boston who were currently there, including first-responders Drs. Gary Fleisher, David Mooney and Shannon Manzi from Children’s Hospital Boston.

As the only Pediatric Emergency Physician and Pediatrician on the relief team, my work began immediately. Before I even had a chance to grab my stethoscope, a frantic family arrived—each person carrying one extremity of a febrile seizing teenager who we ultimately determined had meningitis secondary to a basilar skull fracture sustained in the earthquake.

Over the nearly two weeks our team was there we took care of seriously injuried children, some who had been trapped in the rubble for days, and children with illnesses we rarely see in the U.S., including tuberculosis meningitis, tetanus, rheumatic fever and typhoid. It was intensely gratifying for us to see these children improve in response to our care, and to see the smiles return to their faces and those of their families.

One of the most memorable patients was a 6 week old who arrived just as most of our team was leaving Gheskio to be replaced by a new team. After birth it was determined that the child had congential heart disease, and without surgery—now an impossibility in Haiti—wouldn’t survive. The local pediatrician we had been working with approached me and our Commander, Dr. Susan Briggs, to inquire as to whether we could arrange for care for the child in the U.S. Immediately, we contacted Children’s to arrange evaluation and surgery. Not surprising, Dr. Francis Fynn-Thompson responded from the other end of the satellite phone with a resounding “of course we will help!”

Deb Weiner, MD, PhD

The Hatian pediatrician arranged for the family to bring the child and the medical records to our field hospital the next day. The child arrived just as we were loading the truck to leave for the airport. I evaluated the child, reviewed and photographed the records, deidentified them and emailed them to Dr. Fynn-Thompson and his team. With my worried team members shouting that we were going to miss our plane, I joined them in the open back of the truck and off we went. Dr. Briggs—who was remaining at Gheskio—began the process of arranging transport, which we knew would not be trivial because of all the permissions and documentation required.

The next day President Bill Clinton, who was visiting our field hospital, met the child and family, and thanks to him, they were able leave Haiti and travel to Children’s to receive further evaluation and life saving surgery. The team at Children’s took care of all of the child’s needs—and the family’s—in the same way they always do.

I have had the pleasure of seeing this child and family in the Emergency Department since the surgery. They are doing very well and are so grateful. I’m proud to be part of the NDMS, along with many of my colleagues at Children’s, and proud to be part of the Children’s Hospital Boston team. I tell this story to highlight the fact that there are needs and opportunities for involvement for all healthcare providers who are interested in disaster care and planning, whether at the disaster site, your own practice or your community. Please contact your local institutions and agencies, the AAP and/or disaster relief organizations for further information.