When a group of 27 health professionals from Eastern Health met at St. John’s Airport in July before travelling to Haiti, many of them had never even met before.
But the second they got together, they immediately became one unit.
“That was probably the most heart-warming thing,” orthopedic surgeon Dr. Andrew Furey said in an interview.
The 13 doctors, 13 nurses and one physiotherapist were on a voluntary mission to provide care for people still feeling the effects of a major earthquake last year.
“The biggest thing I took from the whole experience (was) how well we gelled as a team and how big a difference that can actually make in providing care,” Furey said.
“We see it at home and we take it for granted, but you put a team down there together in suboptimal conditions and they all brought more than was expected and everyone functioned very highly,” Furey said. “So, when you come back to St. John’s, that’s the take-home message, that you can make a difference certainly as an individual, but as a team you can make a much larger difference.”
Furey said it demonstrates the maxim that a cohesive group is “greater than the sum of its parts.”
The members of the team all gave up more than a week of their annual vacations to volunteer their services in Haiti from July 15-23 as part of Project Broken Earth 2011.
The project is a non-profit mission in collaboration with Project Medishare, an initiative of the University of Miami School of Medicine.
For Furey, it was his third trip to volunteer his services in Haiti since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010. He spent time there last summer and again in January, but said the July trip was a bit different.
He expected to see about 50 per cent earthquake-related cases and 50 per cent acute cases, but he estimates the team treated about 90 per cent of acute cases and only 10 per cent were linked to the aftermath of the earthquake.
“We were stationed at the trauma hospital for Port-au-Prince, so as a result we saw a lot of acute trauma and acute pediatric issues.”
Many of the cases involved car accidents, gunshot wounds and motorcycle collisions.
“On the pediatric side, we saw a lot of infectious disease, a lot of neonatal care and a lot of disease entities that we just don’t see in Newfoundland and Labrador anymore, thank God,” Furey said. “They still have issues with cholera down there, as well, and we saw several patients with cholera, some who survived and some who didn’t.”
Furey said some of the people the team treated were victims of violence. At one point, he said, they were seeing two or three gunshot wounds a day.
Port-au-Prince, still in the rebuilding stages, is in chaos, Furey said.
“It’s lawless outside the gates of the hospital and outside the gates of protected facilities. It’s just sheer lawlessness,” he said. “As their government rebuilds, hopefully, the police force will become more organized. I know Canada has had a strong role in that, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Furey said there were some sad stories, and the violence the team witnessed wasn’t only targeted at adults. Some of it was inflicted on children.
Haiti was a poor country before the earthquake and its infrastructure, including hospitals, is still substandard.
“Day-to-day issues like motorcycle accidents that you wouldn’t die from in Canada are frequently fatal in Haiti,” Furey said.
During their stay, the Eastern Health team participated in the care of more than 400 outpatients, more than 100 inpatients and 50 surgical patients.
The administration at the local hospital and Project Medishare, which the team partnered with, were so happy with the team and the level of care they provided, “they really want us to come back,” Furey said.
“And, of course, that was our goal to begin with, to make this a regular trip,” he said. “We’re already organizing for the next trip. The date hasn’t finally been set yet, but it will hopefully be in February.”
Furey said there’s so much interest within Eastern Health that a list of willing participants has been compiled and it continues to grow.
On a personal level, he said, there’s no one who can say they weren’t changed by the trip.
“I think everyone’s changed for the better. It makes you appreciate how lucky you are to be born where you were born and how lucky we are to have the medical care that we have and the infrastructure we have in Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s just not present in Haiti.”
Furey said the team would like to thank everyone who donated time, money and effort to make this possible.
The response across the province has been “truly touching,” he said, and the team members felt the responsibility that they were going to Haiti to represent Newfoundland and Labrador.
“And, I can assure you, we didn’t disappoint,” Furey said.
The amount of money raised exceeded their goal, he said, but it will spill over into the next trip and fundraising will continue to keep the project going.
“We’re really hoping to keep this going for the long term because the people of Haiti certainly need it,” Furey said.
Anyone interested in supporting the mission can make a donation through PayPal on the website www.brokenearth.ca.
The site also contains information about the project, a list of the team members and sponsors.