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Locals return from Haiti relief work

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

More than 200,000 people have reportedly died as a result of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that rocked Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, and the surrounding area on Jan. 12. Aid and medical support continue to rush into the country, as thousands more remain with serious injuries, no shelter, and little food or water.

The Clayton News Daily spoke with three local residents who have traveled to Haiti in the past several weeks to assist with medical treatment, food and clothing distribution, and medical transport. Each provided his or her own account of the devastation, the progress of the relief effort, and what needs to be done help the country return to a sense of normalcy.

Lake Charles, La.-native and 10-year Jonesboro resident, Brenda LeFer, is no stranger to disaster relief. A retired physician, LeFer helped in relief efforts in her home state of Louisiana following Hurricane Rita in 2005.

Most recently, LeFer spent a week lending her medical expertise to the victims of the Haitian earthquake as an ultrasound Focused Assessment with Sonography in Trauma (FAST) imaging specialist. Using portable ultrasound technology, LeFer said she assessed crush injuries, checked on the health of babies in utero, and located collapsed veins in order to introduce intravenous medication to areas of the body where blood was flowing properly.

"I got there on Monday, a week after the earthquake," LeFer said. "I wanted to see if ultrasound could save lives in an austere environment. We were providing medical care to the walking wounded. We were dealing with broken tib-fib [tibia and fibula], broken clavicle, severe wounds down to the bone. This was an amazing journey to show that ultrasound is needed, but that also, even the littlest of teams can save a life."

LeFer said during her week in Port-au-Prince and Delmas, a nearby suburb, she stabilized victims and transported them to local field hospitals, determined that a fetus that hadn't moved since the earthquake was still alive in its mother's belly, and narrowly avoided a riot when a delivery truck brought in food for her and other medics in front of hungry earthquake victims.

While food and medical supplies were shipped in abundance, she said, getting them to victims was difficult due to lengthy procedures to acquire medical supplies from United Nations officials and logistical problems.

"I spent more time in traffic and getting my medical supplies than what I actually went out there to do," LeFer said. "That was the frustrating part ... they are not handling this in a large disaster mode like they should be. I am thinking it is going to take at least 10 years before we can even get the infrastructure up. We need a continuum of international support."

LeFer said a greater military presence and more security is needed in the country to ensure the safety of medical professionals and that crutches and tents will be needed in the coming months to help victims deal with long-term injuries and survive the rainy season, which begins this month.

Dabouze Antoine, a native of Haiti who moved to America at the age of 5, has lived in Jonesboro since 2002. A local minister and an intake coordinator for Calvary Refuge Center in Forest Park, Antoine is the chairman and founder of H.O.P.E. (Helping Others Prosper Eternally) Ministries of Georgia, Inc., which has helped drill more than 80 water wells in and around his hometown of Mirebalais, Haiti, since 2005, he said.

On Jan. 24, Antoine left for Haiti with a small team in order to locate his father and other relatives, and to deliver food, clothes, pain killers, bandages, peroxide, rubbing alcohol, and other supplies to the victims of the earthquake.

"The goal was to do first aid and feed the people," Antoine said. "What I saw was that Haiti was run more like a business than a mission. The food was stuck at the airport and you had to sign an application to get it ... it might take four or five days to get approved [by the U.N.]. Things are going to Haiti, but the way it is being distributed isn't effective."

After locating his father, Antoine said he spent a large part of the trip bringing food and supplies to Balan, an area east of Port-au-Prince, which he described as "the poorest place in Haiti." He said, after returning earlier this week, that aid had yet to come to many of the smaller towns and cities outside of the capital.

"In Port-au-Prince, there was transportation and communication," Antoine said. "[In Balan], there was no transportation, all the roads were destroyed, people were stuck, [and] there was no communication. I fed over 1,000 people with what I had in my suitcase, and it wasn't much. You can't wait for the people to come to you because they won't make it. You have to go to the people and the areas that are affected, and when I was there, I didn't see that."

Jeff Wilson, a 10-year Jonesboro resident and 17-year member of the U.S. Air Force, arrived in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 22 as a flight nurse with the 94th Aero-medical Evacuation Squadron, based out of Dobbins Air Reserve Base. During a two-week stint, Wilson was responsible for tending to patients being taken on medical flights from Port-au-Prince to hospitals in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Tampa, Fla.

"We came in at night," Wilson said. "Coming in at night alone was a little overwhelming. Being a flight nurse, my job was to communicate with the nurses about the patients we were taking. My first experience was when I walked into the tent, I thought I was going to get three patients and I was told that we were going to be getting an additional 18 patients."

Wilson said that in two weeks, his squadron transported 200 patients and passengers to America, most of whom were to receive medical treatment. Working through French and Haitian Creole language barriers, Wilson said he tended to patients with a variety of conditions, ranging from premature births, to spinal cord injuries, cervical fractures, and burns.

"I just returned from Iraq in July and even seeing those injuries was significant," Wilson said. "The type of injuries that we saw were [injuries requiring] long-time patient care. They aren't the kind of injuries where people can just get checked and go home. These are people who are going to be in a hospital setting for a long time. Right now, there is not a structure to deal with the patient once they are discharged."

Wilson said the Haitian relief effort will take a long-standing commitment from the U.S., as well as the international community. He said that while everyone may not go on a mission trip, people can lend their support in other ways.

"Looking back at what we've done, the patients that we moved are going to be dramatically impacted by the health care they will receive," said Wilson. "Not everybody is going to be able to participate financially or by providing health-care needs. I would encourage people to find a way that they can participate."