If You’re Needed in Haiti, They’ll Call

by Rachel Wolf:

When an earthquake topping seven on the Richter scale hit Haiti on January 12, Yale’s responders were already in place — but not in Haiti. Denise Walsh was running a Yale Global Health Leadership Institute program in Ethiopia. Linda Degutis was directing the Yale Center for Public Health Preparedness. Shawnta Walcott was pursuing a degree at the Yale Divinity School. All were an ocean away when the earthquake hit, yet all were well prepared for the task to come.

As steering committees formed among Yale faculty and administrators, the question was not whether to help but how. In a relief environment already teeming with agencies and organizations, more volunteers to direct, mouths to feed, and bodies to shelter can be a burden. “You don’t want to add to the difficulties that they have at the site,” Degutis explained.

Workers unload donated supplies from an air flight to Haiti. The supplies accompanied the first Yale medical team to visit Haiti after the January 12 earthquake. (Courtesy Dassault Falcon)

Degutis and her colleagues pulled together a medical team from Yale’s departments of nursing trauma, anesthesia, and emergency medicine. The first volunteers flew down on a donated flight and stayed in a small hotel owned by the father of Ralph Jean-Mary, a Haitian administrator at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The team worked at a hospital in Hinche, a city in the heart of Haiti about five hours north of Port-au-Prince. (Jean-Mary’s father works in the Hinche hospital.) “You look for existing channels down there,” Degutis said. “It’s what you do in any response.”

A second team traveled to Port-au-Prince to work with Partners In Health, a medical non-governmental organization with deep roots in Haiti. This team brought more nurses, who could teach patients how to care for their family members’ injuries as well as their own.

Teaching Haitians how to sustain the relief system is the first step in rebuilding Haiti’s health infrastructure; according to Degutis, the ability to provide this education is Yale’s greatest strength. As a teaching institution with experts whose specialties span Haiti’s constellation of pressing and long-term needs, Yale can offer world-class instruction to those who will rebuild Haiti long after the first-responders have returned home.

Yale’s Global Health Leadership Institute (GHLI) focuses on improving the administrative capacity of hospitals in nations with inadequate healthcare. After the earthquake, when Denise Walsh met up with the Clinton Foundation team stationed in Port-au-Prince, she had already spent two years assisting the Liberian Ministry of Health for GHLI at Redemption Hospital in Monrovia. At Redemption, Walsh worked on the quotidian challenges of hospital administration: patient records, clinical coordination, and budgeting. She also developed a drug dispenser training program that became Liberia’s national standard for certification.

Walsh sees many similarities between the challenges that faced Liberia’s healthcare system and the ones that will face Haiti now. On the ground at University Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Walsh headed straight to the pharmacy. “All these donations were showing up at the door,” Walsh recounted. “Truckloads every day. They were just bringing in hundreds of boxes and stacking them on the side, so we had to open them up and find places for them, all the while keeping lists of what we still needed.” By the end of Walsh’s two-week stay, she and the pharmacist had developed a “par system” for the hospital’s campus, which tracked what was needed in each tent in order to maintain a target level of stock.

In the coming months, relief and reconstruction directors will have to figure out how to maintain international focus on Haiti as the initial media frenzy fades. Shawnta Walcott, a Yale Divinity School student associated with the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians (NOAH), directed the installation of electoral information centers for the National Democratic Institute during the 2000 Haitian presidential election. A pollster by training, Walcott returned to Haiti years later to conduct the only published presidential poll in a contested Haitian presidential election. After the earthquake, Walcott has assisted U.S. and Haitian officials in coordinating relief strategies.

These three women’s stories suggest that when all the benefit concerts and fundraising parties are over, an aspiring relief worker’s path has only begun. “You need to be willing to do the education that’s necessary as background,” Degutis advised. “I’ve been in public health for a long time.” When coupled with cultural understanding, experience gained in graduate school and the U.S. workforce places Yale experts where they need to be when disaster strikes: able to help.

Rachel Wolf ’11 is a Political Science major in Saybrook College.