Haiti: Forging relationships in a land of resiliency

Still devastated by a massive earthquake and now dealing with a cholera epidemic, Haiti may never fully overcome its problems. But a group of doctors and nonmedical personnel from Akron Children’s Hospital who visited Haiti in November 2010 still have hope that small steps can make a difference in this poverty-stricken country.

When the group, including Akron Children’s President and CEO Bill Considine, first planned the trip, the goal was to continue to help their colleagues at St. Damien Hospital cope with the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that claimed 250,000 lives. However, when the group landed in Haiti on Nov. 8, 2010, cholera was the country’s number-one health concern.

“The human toll from cholera may prove to be greater than the earthquake,” said Jeff Kempf, DO, a pediatric ER doctor and director of the Akron Children’s Hospital Office of Pediatric Global Health.

As of early December 2010, there were 2,300 deaths from cholera and the Pan American Health Organization estimates 400,000 Haitians may get cholera in 2011.

In addition to Considine and Dr. Kempf, the Akron Children’s contingent included Ellen Kempf, MD, director of Akron Children’s Oak Adoptive Health Center; John Pope, MD, assistant director of the pediatric intensive care unit; and Vanita Oelschlager, an Akron philanthropist and children’s book author. Vanita and Jim Oelschlager, chairman of Oak Associates, helped establish the Oak Adoptive Health Center and Office of Pediatric Global Health.

Philanthropy and medical expertise offer hope

The group from Akron Children’s flew to Haiti on the Oelschlagers’ private plane, which was stocked with 600 pounds of bed sheets and pediatric gowns donated by Paris Healthcare Linens and 250 pounds of toys donated by Little Tikes. Akron-based GoJo Industries also shipped 900 pounds of Purell ® to St. Damien’s.

The group brought 900 intraosseous (IO) needles, thanks in part to a donation from the Oelschlagers. IO  infusion is the most effective way to get fluids into severely dehydrated cholera patients. But each needle costs about $100.

Dr. Jeff Kempf demonstrates how to place an IO needle into a patient.

Dr. Jeff Kempf demonstrates how to place an IO needle into a patient.

David Andrews, MD, chairman of Akron Children’s department of Surgery; and pediatric nurse Rose Andrews, OR nurse Patrick Conway, and pediatricians Janis Galm and Rachel Konda-Sundheim also traveled to Haiti separately. Dr. Andrews’ goal was to perform surgeries, such as hernia repairs, that are considered standard care in the United States, but elective in Haiti.

In all his years as a pediatric physician in the U.S. and a frequent volunteer on medical missions around the world, this was Dr. Jeff Kempf’s first experience with cholera. Within minutes of the plane’s landing, he was dispatched to a hospital in Port-de-Paix, where he taught nuns and volunteer medics how to drill an IO needle into the tibia and begin IV fluids.

While Drs. Kempf and Pope treated children in the hospital, Dr. Ellen Kempf and Vanita delivered toys to St. Helene, an orphanage affiliated with St. Damien’s. Vanita plans to make “resiliency in childhood” a theme of her next picture book, with proceeds benefitting the children of Haiti.

“The Haitian people are among the poorest in the world and, yet, we saw many smiles and hands waving to us in friendship,” said Oelschlager. “When you consider their recent history, they truly define the word ‘resiliency.’”

Dr. Ellen Kempf is always struck by the similarities of the people she meets on her medical missions.

“When you go to a country like Haiti, you see that moms just want to be moms and kids just want to be kids. None of us can control the place and circumstance to which we are born,” she said.

The vast acres of rubble, the tent cities, and the daily funerals for children left a lasting impression on Considine.

“More than 70 percent of Haiti’s government offices were destroyed in the earthquake,” said Considine. “They do not have the things we take for granted – things like a postal system, cemeteries and sanitary water. Yet, I found the Haitian people to be very hopeful.”

Sister hospitals

In June 2010, Considine signed an affiliation agreement between Akron Children’s and St. Damien’s, which is located in Port-au-Prince and is the only free pediatric hospital in Haiti.

“Education is part of our mission and we will continue to help St. Damien’s with various projects,” said Considine. “This was the third trip to St. Damien’s for Dr. Jeff Kempf and the second for Dr. Pope and Dr. Ellen Kempf, so there is a relationship and trust between us."

In addition to the donation of supplies, the affiliation will focus on training. A St. Damien’s nurse spent a week at Akron Children’s learning infection control techniques.

After his first trip to Haiti, Dr. Kempf saw a need and returned on this trip with laminated posters to hang on the wall of the St. Damien’s ER. The posters use pictures and text (in French) to explain various steps in pediatric resuscitation. Teaching a pediatric advanced life support (PALS) course is on the agenda for a spring trip.

The hospitals will explore the use of telehealth technology to give St. Damien’s doctors more timely access to pathology reports and radiology services, and possibly bringing a few children here for quaternary care.

“Quite honestly, what works for us may not work in Haiti,” said Considine. “Their needs are many. Father [Rick] Frechette [medical director of St. Damien’s and St. Helene’s] discusses the importance of being respectful and nonjudgmental. The Haitians are dealing with the cards they have been dealt and few of us can imagine living with so much tragedy around us.”

Considine returned from Haiti and immediately resumed his busy schedule of meetings, business travel and planning for the future of Akron Children’s. But, he said not a day goes by when he does not think about his three days in Haiti.

“An experience like that makes you appreciate the value of our community and the investments we have made in health care,” he said. “Your perspective changes. It causes you to pause.”

Forging relationships with Haiti
Publication: Children's Progress
Issue: Spring 2011

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