Stories from Haiti

Following the January earthquake in Haiti, President Obama wrote in Newsweek, "Above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do."  The same can be said of Rollins students and alumni. In times of disaster, they are trained to help communities and nations recover and move forward.

By Kay Torrance and Pam Auchmutey

Traveling solo:

Jean Cadet

Although he became an American citizen three years ago, "part of my heart will always belong to my fellow Haitians," says Jean Cadet 10MPH, a student in behavioral sciences and health education.

The Haitian-trained doctor returns home twice a year on medical missions. After the earthquake, Cadet and Madsen Beau de Rochars, another Haitian physician studying in the RSPH, wanted to return as soon as possible to care for the injured and check on their families. They tried to get on a charter flight, but the sponsoring organization could not get clearance to land its plane. Members of Cadet's church paid for his airline ticket. Rollins students held a fund-raiser, donating money and basic medical supplies. Cadet bought a tent from Wal-Mart, filled three large bags with clothes and medical supplies—the most the airline would allow—and he was off.


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He flew to Miami and on to Santo ­Domingo, Dominican Republic, and then settled in for a seven-hour bus ride to Port-au-Prince. His destination was the Église Adventiste de l'Auditorium de la Bible, a church that he knew as a boy. The church was two blocks from the Presidential Palace in an area that sustained heavy damage, and although little was left of the church, 1,200 people now called its property home. He arrived after dark, and two patients were waiting for him. The next day he would see many more.

Some people on the church grounds sought Cadet's advice on proper sanitation. Early each morning, church residents held prayer, and on the day that Cadet was present, an impromptu public health class followed. Using a megaphone, he instructed them on how to properly construct a latrine and dispose of garbage. He also talked about preventing infectious disease.

In between working at refugee camps and tending to medical needs, Cadet checked on family and friends. A few dear friends had died. His brother and sister were sleeping on the street. His uncle's family had gone outside to play soccer right before the quake hit, which probably saved their lives. Their two-story house collapsed, killing four renters, whose bodies remained in the rubble. "I could smell the bodies, but it didn't seem to bother my family as they slept near the house," says Cadet. "I think they became immune to it."

Back at the church, some leaders wanted to urge people to leave the city since help still had not arrived. Cadet thought otherwise. "I told them not to push it," he says. "Even if they could provide only one meal a day, at least they have each other. There is a support system there. I met a man who had lost his wife and children. He needed that support system. Many of the camps were not well organized. They had no control of who was coming and going."

All too quickly, it was time to leave. Classes were starting at Rollins, and Cadet's wife and two small children eagerly awaited his return. By his last night in Haiti, numerous people had called dibs on his tent. He left the tent, the extra clothing, and the $1,475 that Rollins students with the Health Organization for Latin America had raised. "I really want to thank the students," he says. "They responded to the call for help."

Because of his emergency training in Haiti and at Rollins, Cadet knew what to do when he arrived at Port-au-Prince. "Though I couldn't take much since I was traveling solo, whatever small help that I brought to that community was of value," he says. "They were very grateful. In the end, I was happy I went solo. I always say that everything happens for a reason."

Hands-on help:

Madsen Beau de Rochars

Madsen Beau de Rochars 10MPH heard the news from a friend: "Haiti has been devastated." He tried to phone family and friends there but to no avail. As he watched the television pictures come in on CNN, he decided to go to Haiti right away to help. Before becoming a William H. Foege Global Health Fellow at Rollins in 2008, Beau de Rochars directed the lymphatic filariasis program at the Hôpital Sainte Croix in Léogâne, about 18 miles west of Port-au-Prince. He knew then the many challenges that Haiti faced and that he eventually would return.

Following the earthquake, when his charter flight to Haiti fell through, Beau de Rochars' faculty adviser, Deborah McFarland, was able to get him a seat on a private plane.

"I had good support from my classmates and the faculty," he says. "People called and came to see me. It really touched me." Although he had some idea of what to expect when he landed in Léogâne, the scene still stunned him. "It was shocking and emotional to see my friends and colleagues living on the street," he says. "I have many friends and extended family who didn't make it." (His and his wife's immediate family were okay.)

In Port-au-Prince, the house that they left behind had collapsed. "I praise God that my family was not there," says Beau de Rochars, who slept inside a borrowed car in Léogâne.

The first refugee camp that he visited had a team of doctors and nurses in place, so he traveled 20 miles outside of Léogâne to an area that needed help. He drove those in need of medical care to various facilities. In one of the refugee camps he visited, he encountered a little girl who had an infected wound on her foot. "If she lived elsewhere," he says, "she would have had access to hospital care and would not have lost her foot to amputation because of such cruel circumstances."

During his mission, Beau de Rochars was tapped to serve on a presidential commission to provide technical assistance on needs assessments, preparations for infectious disease outbreaks, and distribution of medicine. He also helped ­Michael Ritter 08MPH, who operates a household water treatment program in Léogâne, and Graham Huff, who leads the Atlanta nonprofit League of Hope, set up water pumps to serve town residents. "I tried to put my hands anywhere I could help," says Beau de Rochars.

Now back at Rollins, he wants to return to Haiti even more. After graduating in May, he will serve two years with the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service before he can return to his homeland. While he praises the international community for its response, he is concerned that mental health services and care for amputees may be overlooked.

"Many people there told me they lost their wife or husband or kids, but I didn't see any tears," he says. "They were fighting to survive and still unsure of what happened, or they found social support because so many others shared their situation. "I believe the Haitian population is strong, and we can rebuild," he adds. "We have to do better than what we did in the past."

Safe water for survival:

Michael Ritter

Michael Ritter 08MPH has worked for Deep Springs International in Haiti since summer 2008, running a household water treatment program. His work is vital to improving living conditions in a country that ranks as the western hemisphere's poorest. After the quake, his program made the difference between life and death.

On January 12, he was standing on the second floor of a rectory building in the mountains outside Léogâne, where he is stationed. The building shook violently back and forth but did not collapse. He and a Haitian colleague went out onto the porch and heard screams nearby.

When Ritter returned to Léogâne, he found 80% to 90% of the town destroyed. In the immediate days afterward, he drove a truck with a 55-gallon drum to distribute water in the town. He secured more equipment to produce chlorine solution to treat the water, and the program's 165 remaining Haitian community health workers resumed distributing five-gallon buckets and solution.

"That's one of the biggest networks we've got right now—the human network," Ritter said from Haiti. "A lot of our issues now are how to scale up effectively."

Before the quake, his water program had reached 1,500 households. By mid-March, the program had reached 4,500 families and distributed enough chlorine to treat 15 million liters of water.

Ritter has resumed living at the CDC compound in Léogâne. The compound is sprinkled with tents, housing up to 100 people. The satellite Internet and phone lines are working faithfully, and he no longer has to take "bucket baths."

While there is much work to be done, Ritter is hopeful about Haiti's prospects and plans to remain for now. "Walking around Léogâne, seeing the speed in which people built some sort of a structure with wood poles and bed sheets for roofs, shows the creativity and resourcefulness of Haitian people," he says.

Witness to plans in action:

Nicole Dionne

Nicole Dionne 10MPH was in a car stopped outside a hospital office in Port-au-Prince on January 12. She was on her way back to the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, about 40 miles north.

A second-year MPH student in global health, Dionne was researching her thesis, a descriptive overview of diabetic patients and comparison of the hospital's treatment to the standards set by the International Diabetes Foundation. Her work would serve as a guide for future development of community-based preventive programs.

When the earthquake hit, "I initially thought the car had been hit from behind," she says. "I didn't really understand what was happening until I saw the buildings around us start to collapse. Our driver managed to make it back to the hospital after finding an alternate route out of the city."

Deschapelles, she found, was undamaged, but patients from the greater Port-au-Prince area were flooding in. "Patients were arriving by any means possible—motorcycles, the back of pickup trucks, buses," she says. "At the time I left the hospital, a week after the earthquake, patients were still arriving. Hospital staff were working nonstop. There were more than 250 patients waiting for surgery."

An International SOS team met her at the Port-au-Prince airport to put her on a private helicopter flight out of the country. The scene at the airport was chaotic. The U.S. State Department had instructed American citizens to go to the airport to be evacuated, but the U.S. military had cut off entry because of overcrowding. The SOS team paid a private jet pilot for a seat on board, and Dionne was on her way to Santo Domingo to catch a commercial flight back to the states.

"As a student of global public health, I have learned a lot by seeing the emergency relief process," she wrote of her experience in Haiti after returning home. "We spend a lot of time in the classroom learning about preparedness, but seeing the plans in action is something completely different. With every disaster response, there is a lot to be learned. Each time we can improve.

"If it weren't for school starting [in January], I would like to have stayed at the hospital and continue helping there," she adds. "I think some family members thought this would change my career goals and push me into working domestically, but my fellow classmates in global health all understood how much more motivated this situation makes me to finish my degree and get working in the field."

Relief for the long term:

Alawode Oladele

Given the extent of the destruction in Haiti, Alawode Oladele 93MPH worries about what might happen next. With hurricane season approaching and people living in tents, there's no telling how the nation would cope with another disaster.

"There is still a sense of urgency and a great need for human services," says Oladele, a physician who directs medical services for the DeKalb County Board of Health. "When the wind blows, children go into shock because they think another earthquake is happening. There are social and mental health issues that will show their evil faces years from now."

Oladele hopes to quell those demons through the Haiti Health Collaborative (HHC), a Georgia network that advances health care and socioeconomic development. Since the earthquake, HHC has provided food, water, clothing, counseling, and medical supplies and support where needed. Premiere International Health Care, an HHC partner led by Oladele, organizes medical teams to work with Sonje Ayiti, an HHC partner organization in Haiti. Although Sonje Ayiti teams are assigned in and around Port-au-Prince, most are spread out in the north, where a hospital there has treated more than 300 amputees. Miles away on the southern coast, HHC has partnered with Capass (Camaraderie Philanthropic Association) to support hospital services at Centre Medical Emmanual in Jacmel.

Oladele has an eye on Haiti's future beyond the acute need for medical services. He is also tapping the skills of agricultural experts with Florida-based ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) to develop seeds that will thrive in Haiti's tropical climate. Teaching people how to raise crops, fish, and livestock will help sustain lives in rural inland Haiti, away from the earthquake rubble and the direct path of hurricanes.

"People ask, ‘What does that have to do with health?,' " says Oladele, who will return soon to Haiti. "It takes food, water, shelter, education, and economic stability to maintain good health."

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