News & Events

Helping Haiti

Local doctors reach out as part of the Rappha Medical Heartbeat Mission
By DEBRA HAIGHT – H-P Correspondent

Published: Thursday, January 28, 2010 1:10 PM EST
The situation in Haiti remains grave despite the world’s efforts to reach out to the earthquake victims.

That’s the assessment of Dr. Sherry O’Donnell of St. Joseph, who returned earlier this week from a medical mission trip to Haiti. In her years of medical mission trips she has seen her share of disasters, from Rwanda to Sri Lanka.

O’Donnell and seven others from Southwest Michigan returned Sunday night after a week in Haiti. Other area doctors on the trip were Dr. David Collins of Eau Claire and Dr. Michael Mayle of Coloma.

Collins works for Intercare, and Mayle has a private practice. Both have volunteered at the HERBIE Clinic in Benton Harbor with O’Donnell.

They were part of the Rappha Medical Heartbeat Mission, whose members also included a Detroit-area doctor and four doctors and a minister from Tulsa, Okla. They treated hundreds of people a day.

"No matter how badly they depict it on television, you can’t get the full feel of it unless you’re there," O’Donnell said. "It was very bad. It wasn’t the worst I have seen, but my point of reference is different than the others."

She said when they left Haiti on Saturday, the situation hadn’t gotten better. The Haitians were still hard pressed to get the aid and food they need. The only positive she could find was there were fewer dead bodies out in the open.

The Rappha team members worked from dawn to dusk and sometimes were called out to help in the nighttime in emergencies, she said. Their clinic site was near a Salvation Army hospital and orphanage, and they worked outside in tents for the most part.

Despite her experiences helping out in many disaster zones around the world, O’Donnell said that it’s always hard to see all the suffering.

"You can’t be in that amount of mass destruction and not break down," she said.

"Sure, it gets hard. I started to break down and cry one day after putting a seven months’ pregnant woman who was septic in an SUV to go to a hospital. But I had to tuck away the tears and go on."

Despite everything, O’Donnell said team members were excited to have had the chance to go to Haiti. "People were thrilled to have gone," she said. "They felt it was an awesome experience and wanted to know when we were going back."

She said Rappha has another team of doctors, this time all from Tulsa, in Haiti this week and plans to keep sending teams over the next several weeks. People interested in donating money to support the work can go on the Web site.

She may go back again herself, but right now is organizing other parts of the mission, including getting more supplies and helping other area doctors who may want to go.

Mayle said the hardest part for him was realizing the extent of the tragedy, as people young and old not only dealt with their own injuries, but also the loss of loved ones.

"It was overwhelming," he said. "I saw two young children ages six and nine, and I said I needed to talk to their parents. The news came back then that their parents were dead. That hit me hard."

Mayle said the team’s connections with the Salvation Army through Benton Harbor Major Mike McKee and others helped a lot. "Because of the Salvation Army, we were able to get to where the people needed care," he said.

"People were carried in on doors and in wheelbarrows. You really can’t imagine it," he said. "It’s hard to put in words what we saw. I tried to prepare myself for the worst, but it was worse than I imagined.

"We worked with an interpreter and treated one person after another and even delivered babies. We were cleaning wounds, treating injuries and even doing amputations with only local anesthesia.

"We saw a lot of people with respiratory infections from the dust and smoke that rose up after the earthquake. Then we started seeing children with malaria as the week progressed."

One of the most memorable experiences for Collins was treating a 7-week-old infant who came in weighing less than 5 pounds. They did a phone consultation with a Kalamazoo specialist and were able to keep the baby alive.

"I feel like I was watching miracles where we were at," Collins said. "Late Friday we saw a young 3-year-old boy who had a skull fracture and we were able to get him on the Navy hospital ship."

He said it was an "amazing blessing" to have connected with the Salvation Army and to establish a clinic to help people. "When we were leaving we met some doctors who hadn’t been able to hook up with anyone," he said.

Collins said the Rappha team saw 230 people on the first day of their clinic on Monday and as many as 330 people on their last clinic day on Friday. "The work was constant," he said.

"It is as bad as it looks on TV," he said. "Things were destroyed everywhere, there’s little food and people are living on the street. There’s no electricity, water or sewer. You could smell the dead bodies. It was difficult.

"There was tragedy before with all the poverty. After the earthquake, people are living outdoors without any resources. Malaria and tuberculosis is spreading, and that’s not going to help."

Collins said the major aftershock that occurred last Wednesday shook everyone up. "Most of us were in bed, and that had everyone out of bed fast," he said. "All the people around us were terrorized."

The trip down to Haiti was also interesting, he said. They ended up flying from Florida to Haiti aboard one of the private jets donated to the relief effort by Hendrick Motorsports.

"What we heard was that Rick Hendrick asked people how he could help and they knew of Missionary Flights International," Collins said. "The jets he donated were really a help."

The return trip was also interesting. They flew back to Florida on Saturday on a World War II-era DC-3 plane before catching another plane to Chicago.