Q. Where were you when Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti?
A. I was home in Canada, watching from afar as the storm came closer to Haiti. I didn’t sleep the night that I saw it move west from Jamaica. I thought to myself, `This is going to be another tough one for Haiti. This small country, the poorest in the western hemisphere, is again getting hit by a major natural disaster that will set them back.’
Q. Once you arrived and started accessing hurricane-affected areas, what did you see?
A: We saw huge needs in villages and towns up and down the western coast and people desperate for help. Because of the damage, many areas were cut off by the storm so we had to helicopter in to some towns and reached others by boat and foot. We were the first to arrive in many of the places we visited, so while we were assessing the devastation to medical clinics and other infrastructure we were also handing out relief items, shelter kits and hygiene items to very grateful people.
The destruction we saw was incredible. Banana, mango and coconut trees were all cut down by the rains and wind and you could see miles and miles without a tree left, or a house. It was plain to see what this hurricane did to people’s livelihoods, food sources and every aspect of their life.
Q. What was the condition of the medical facilities you visited?
A. We visited hospitals and cholera treatment centres that were clearly overwhelmed. Most of these facilities were at low functionality before the hurricane. After the storm hit, suddenly triple the number of patients were pouring in. The medical staff who were already thinly resourced simply didn’t have the capacity to take care of them. At one hospital there were no bandages, few medical supplies and no radiology department.
I give enormous credit to these health professionals who stick with it, despite extremely adverse conditions. We have to remember that everyone in these communities is affected. Every doctor and nurse I met, nearly every Haiti Red Cross volunteer I met, is a hurricane survivor. But they still come to work every day to help others in need, even though they lost their homes too, even though they have no roof over their heads or food. I have enormous respect for them.
Q. What kind of health issues were medical teams facing after the storm?
A. Cholera rates have certainly gone up. Tetanus cases have also gone up. Many people have not been immunized, so some are dying of tetanus and others of sepsis. There are a lot of common illnesses such as children with acute respiratory illness and diarrhea. With clinics destroyed and increased medical needs, the government of Haiti identified the need for mobile medical teams while health facilities are rehabilitated. That’s why the Canadian Red Cross, with support from the Canadian government, rapidly deployed a mobile clinic to operate in hard to reach communities.
Q. You’ve responded to many natural disasters, including the major earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. How would you compare them?
A. Yes, I’ve worked for Red Cross teams in Indonesia after the tsunami, in Pakistan, Haiti and Nepal after their devastating earthquakes and in response to the typhoon that hit the Philippines a few years ago, and all of these disasters were enormous, difficult to respond to and had very different contexts.
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti devastated the capital and there were a large number of deaths. Port-au-Prince was immobilized and there were not enough people or resources to quickly respond. That disaster was far more centralized, whereas the needs following Hurricane Matthew are geographically vast. The storm hit the Southwest, North and Northwestern areas of the country, including some very remote and hard to reach populations. Many people needed help in the mountains and still do.
It’s also very different from the perspective of foreign medical teams. In 2010, there was no international registration of foreign medical teams. An overwhelming amount of qualified and unqualified medical staff arrived and coordination was challenging. From this experience, the World Health Organization set up a pre-registration and quality-assurance process that also determines skills and capacity of medical teams. As a result, when a disaster strikes today, affected governments can use this mechanism to pick and choose the kind of support they need for their health infrastructure, and that utilizes foreign medical teams more appropriately.
Q. You’ve wrapped up your assignment and returned to Canada. What concerns you the most after working in Haiti the past few weeks?
A. I’m afraid of donor fatigue and that people might give up on Haiti. Every time a disaster hits Haiti, development is halted. We need to keep supporting Haiti and ensuring that Haitians there who are trying to make a difference continue to get the support they need. I tell my medical students, residents and others who ask me about my experiences, you just need to look into the eyes of one person struggling to survive there understand why the world cannot give up on Haiti.