U.S. medical teams — including Catholic groups — have made an impact in the month after Haiti’s devastating earthquake Jan. 12, even as the Haitian people remain in dire need of everything imaginable, including food and shelter. 

Returning from his second trip to his native Haiti since the earthquake, Father Robés Charles of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had helped lead a medical team of four doctors and eight nurses. While the team assisted victims, Father Charles saw firsthand its devastating effects. 

“I think the episcopal conference is still in the state of shock, and where they go right now is still uncertain,” Father Charles told Our Sunday Visitor, noting that many clergy are sleeping outdoors at their collapsed churches, rectories and seminaries, where the dead have yet to be removed. 

He worried about uneven food distribution, the coming rainy season and the need to give the dead a proper burial. The delegation stopped at the Lazarist Fathers’ monastery in Fleuriot La Plaine, a Port-au-Prince suburb, where they bolstered a clinic treating the injured and sick. 

“I don’t see a massive operation to help with the hunger yet,” he said. “It is like we’re dipping fingers in the water and putting [it] on the tongues of the people while they are on fire. It is not possible for the people to keep going the way they are. The needs are so big.” 

The priest is planning to keep returning to Haiti with Catholic medical teams, clergy and others who can assist and stand in solidarity with the Haitians. 

“It was like therapy to see the strength of the people,” he said. “The courage inside of Haitians now is beyond measure, but going over there to reconnect myself with the nuns and priests who want to carry on tells me that we over here have to stand with them and do whatever we can do in all possible ways.” 

Food, sanitation needs 

Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, has increased its funding commitment and is planning an emergency response with $38 million in donations and support. As of Feb. 2, CRS had provided food to more than 100,000 people in Port-au-Prince at the refugee camp at Petionville Country Club. 

A CRS team also assisted in getting Port-au-Prince’s St. Francois de Sales Hospital, which was 70 percent destroyed, running within days of the disaster. Volunteer medical teams are now performing up to 200 critical operations per week. 

CRS staff members are helping in the construction of latrines and washing stations at various sites, including St. Francois de Sales. 

Treating serious injuries 

Many grassroots medical groups have organized themselves into emergency response teams. In Manassas, Va., Medical Missionaries sent a surgical team to its own St. Joseph Clinic in Thomassique, Haiti, and to the refugee centers in Port-au-Prince, said Peter Dirr, board member and member of St. Thomas à Becket Parish in Reston, Va. 

The group has been working near the Haiti-Dominican border since 1997 and has a database of more than 200 medical professionals. Third, fourth and fifth medical teams are being planned with volunteers from throughout the United States. 

“Some refugees are making their way inland and needing secondary care for wound follow-up and malnutrition near the border,” Dirr said. “So our doctors went further to the hospital at Hinche, a provincial capital, and found a lot of patients arriving with some very serious injuries requiring amputation and surgeries.” 

It’s not an easy journey for volunteers, who are each asked to carry two 50-pound bags of medical supplies in addition to personal items. The group is in need of donations of crutches, medical supplies, as well as shoes and basic hygiene items.  

Members find the work extremely satisfying, Dirr told OSV, but they also expose themselves to harsh conditions and, in some cases, illnesses. They are also exposed to the pain of not being able to save those who are too sick to recover. 

“I just got an e-mail this morning from one of our nurses,” Dirr said. “A mother brought a sick child into the clinic, and they started to treat the child, hoping they could do more at the hospital in town. In spite of working on the child for two or three hours, the child passed away from dehydration and malnutrition.”  

Stepping up 

The New York-based Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), founded nearly 100 years ago with an outreach to lepers in Haiti, has earmarked $11 million in donations at its sites in Jacmel and Port-au-Prince. 

The group has received some 300 phone calls and 500 e-mails from medical professionals interested in going to Haiti, said Richard Galentino, director of CMMB’s medical volunteer program. A total of 223 have filled out the agency’s volunteer application form; several Catholic hospital systems have been in touch to offer assistance. 

“People have been shocked by the disaster on television and are looking for a way to help,” he said. “They are willing to take vacation time or a leave to do it.”

Long-term needs 

Currently, there are plenty of emergency medical volunteers in Haiti, but the need for volunteers will continue for the next year or two, he said. 

CMMB sent an initial team of surgeons and doctors to Haiti and was planning to send its senior vice president of programs, Jeff Jordan, to do a long-term assessment. Of particular interest is medical professionals willing to fill longer-term positions in Haiti; 14 have called with an interest in doing so.

“The need is going to be great when Haiti is not in the headlines, but we will still need help in the rehabilitation and in re-creating a better health infrastructure.” Short-term CMMB volunteers do not receive compensation, but do get logistical support for housing and some transportation. “Everybody who has gone there has felt like they have made a great impact and that they were living their Christian values and life to the fullest,” Galentino said. 

Cutting down on chaos 

In Miami, Jean Augustin, a nurse manager at Mercy Hospital, said the Florida-based group, which is aligned with the Order of Malta’s medical missions, has been sending medical teams to Haiti to work in the capital and the hard-hit town of Leogane. 

“We have already set up the next three groups, and are thinking three to five years out, because we are hoping that American Airlines will open the flights to Haiti up soon,” Augustin said, adding that organizers are discussing ways to reduce the various groups going to those with larger programs and longer-term commitments. 

“This may reduce the amount of groups going down because the problem is sometimes with so many people there it can be chaotic and there is rubbernecking — you go down and nobody knows what to do, and the first day and a half of your time is wasted on setting up,” he said. 

Tom Tracy writes from Florida.

On The Ground (sidebar)

Catholic Relief Services: Contact them at www.crs.org, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203-7090, or 800-736-3467. 

Catholic Medical Mission Board: Has an online medical volunteer application. Visit www.cmmb.org, or call 212-242-7757 or 800-678-5659 for information. 

Medical Missionaries: The Virginia-based organization can be reached at 703-361-5116, or visit www.medmissionaries.org.