By: Clydette Powell, MD, MPH, FAAP
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. January 12’s earthquake, epicentered in Port-au-Prince, killed over 200,000 people, but also mobilized one of the largest humanitarian disaster responses in the Western Hemisphere in the last 60 years. As Medical Officer at USAID/Washington, I was part of that response.
Dr. Clydette Powell on the USNS COMFORT in January 2010. Photo Credit: USAID/Global Health
They lay in adjacent incubators – two of Haiti’s newest citizens – one born in Port-au-Prince, the other born on a ship in the harbor. Both premature, weighing in at some three pounds. Catherine was born one day before the earthquake. Barely 24 hours old on January 12, 2010, Catherine and her mom were suddenly homeless. Her mom could not breastfeed, and Catherine became dehydrated and ill. After days of wandering the streets of Haiti’s capital city, Catherine’s mom was found by a medical triage team who sent them both to the US Navy hospital ship, the USNS COMFORT, which had just arrived in the harbor. On board, Isabella Rose, her incubator neighbor, had just been born by C-Section. Her mom had been severely injured during the earthquake, and went into premature labor. Again, another triage team sent Isabella Rose’s mom for emergency obstetrical care on the USNS COMFORT, and Isabella Rose took her first breaths on board a US Navy hospital ship.
On the evening of January 12, I had seen the broadcasts of the earthquake’s devastation and the misery it brought to people of a country where I had worked for USAID on numerous short term assignments since 2001. Without hesitation, I volunteered to be part of USAID’s response to this disaster. Being the civilian-military liaison for our Health Office within the Bureau for Global Health, the medical officer in the Infectious Disease Division, and a member of the Haiti Health Team provided the foundation for quick deployment. Invited by the Commanding Officer to serve on the USNS COMFORT, I sailed down with its crew and found myself in several roles, including as neurologist in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, when Catherine and Isabella Rose arrived.
Our USAID/Haiti Health team, themselves survivors of the earthquake, and our team on board the COMFORT quickly established communication links. We worked in tandem to triage, transport, and care for the most severely injured. During the course of two months, the ship-based and the land-based teams collaborated in the care of over 1,000 patients. More than 2,000 helicopter flights transported patients and teams between ship and land. Public health priorities and support for the stewardship role of the Haitian Ministry of Health became daily (and nightly) discussions of both the ship and USAID land-based teams. As the relief effort grew, so did the complexities of patient management, the coordination of care, and the optimization of public health disaster relief responses. Yet on a microcosm, there were still the Catherines, the Isabella Roses, and other children—the displaced, the orphans, some likely restaveks—and injured adults, all of whom sought emergency medical care on board the USNS COMFORT.
As I look back to one year ago, representing USAID in the Haiti earthquake response generated in me a renewed sense of patriotism, increased admiration for our USAID/Haiti team, greater esteem for the US Navy, lasting gratitude for my medical and public health skills, and an even deeper respect for the Haitian people. In the worst of times/best of times perspective, Catherine received her angel wings, to use the Navy parlance, but Isabella Rose bloomed. One of Haiti’s newest citizens, she became a symbol of her people’s resilience, and a tiny testimony to the effective collaboration of USAID, the US Navy, and the non-governmental organizations when all things can work together for the good.