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Haiti quake: Boston-area medical groups mobilize to aid Haiti

Haiti, January 19, 2010

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WBUR-FM
January, 2010

BOSTON — As global relief pours into earthquake-ravaged Haiti, Boston-area aid groups are mobilizing volunteers to assist in the rescue efforts.

Boston-based Partners In Health (PIH) said it has received between 500 and 1,000 applications from health care professionals willing to travel to Haiti. In assembling a team from that pool, PIH Chief Policy Director Donna Barry said six types of health care workers will be of particular value on the ground: surgeons, orthopedists, trauma nurses, operating room nurses, anesthesiologists, and nurse anesthetists.

“We’re looking for language skills [also],” Barry said. “We’re looking at whether or not someone has already had some field experience — either in cataclysmic conditions like we’re in now, or at least has done some work overseas. Just somebody who’s really going to be willing to rough it. The conditions will not be hotel-like.”

The group, which has operated in Haiti since 1985, has been treating patients at several sites in the Central Plateau region, with hopes to set up a surgical center in Port-au-Prince, the island nation’s capital city, soon.

As several airlines announced the grounding of commercial flights to Haiti from the United States Thursday afternoon, PIH was still working out the logistics of how and when it will transport its team to Haiti. Barry said a firm number of volunteers will remain unfixed until the organization can better assess the total need on the ground.

“We will run low on supplies,” Barry said. “Our staff are going to be exhausted. That’s why we’re looking for replenishment.”

Mercy Corps, a Cambridge-based aid group, sent program officer Jenny Vaughan to Haiti Thursday morning as part of a five-person emergency response team. In Port-au-Prince, her team’s first boots-on-the-ground role is to assess the damage and determine the most pressing needs of survivors.

“We’ll also be looking at how we can help communities to transition from immediate relief to longer-term rebuilding and recovery,” Vaughan said before her 11 a.m. flight.

Vaughan acknowledged that the strangled flow of information out of Haiti has left her with a little trepidation. “We get the information on the news, but we’re not sure how we’ll be able to respond,” she said. “I’m excited to see how we can help,” she added.

Mercy Corps is not sending additional staff just yet, but rather only Vaughan’s initial scout team to assess needs on the ground. Once those needs are determined, they’ll use donations to purchase relief supplies locally around Boston, in an effort to contribute to the economy at home while providing aid abroad.

Organizations face the added challenge of mobilizing relief in a country that had a poor communications infrastructure before the earthquake hit.

Barry said that PIH has relied mainly on e-mail and text messaging and hopes that communications will improve over the next few days.

Massachusetts General Hospital and Ipswich-based Partners In Development are among other local groups assembling medical teams.

To submit a volunteer application to Partners in Health, e-mail volunteer@pih.org with your credentials, language skills (Haitian, Creole, or French desired), availability, and contact information.