A year ago this month, an earthquake devastated Haiti, taking the lives of an estimated 230,000 people, including about 90 percent of the country's medical and nursing students. In response, numerous Richmond-area physicians traveled to the island nation to offer medical assistance. But these trips quickly became more than temporary fixes.
"Haiti is going to need help for a very long time," says Beth Bortz, executive director of the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation, the 9,000-member society's charitable arm. That's why this month, the foundation plans to launch a long-term solution: Colleagues in Care, spearheaded by Dr. John Kenerson, a Virginia Beach cardiologist. "I envision that we would be sending probably six to eight folks every two weeks," Bortz says.
Colleagues in Care will function as a clearinghouse that identifies specific medical needs in Haiti — the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — and then matches them with Virginia doctors' specialty areas. Bortz explains that they've established a relationship with Operation Blessing, a nonprofit whose focus is providing clean water, to ensure healthy water sources in areas where the doctors will be working. Colleagues in Care will work from a base at St. Damien Hospital in Port-au-Prince.
For some Richmond-area health care providers, working in Haiti began long before the earthquake.
Midwives for Haiti, a nonprofit program co-founded by certified nurse-midwife Nadene Brunk in 2006, is led by Robert S. Eads, an obstetrics and gynecology physician at Virginia Women's Center. To the staff's knowledge, Midwives for Haiti is that country's only government-recognized teaching program for midwives. So immediately after the earthquake, its services were in high demand. "Since then, we have been placing some 300 midwives in volunteer positions across a number of different areas in Haiti," says Dr. Kenneth Heatwole, a partner at Mechanicsville Medical Center and board member of Midwives for Haiti.
Heatwole, who has been traveling to Haiti for 20 years, explains that Haiti currently needs about 1,200 midwives. This month, Midwives for Haiti launches its fourth class, with 16 students. The program, which takes about nine months to complete, is based at St. Therese Hospital in Hinche — about 200 miles east of Port-au-Prince — where Eads, Heatwole and other local physicians travel to teach classes, as well as run 12 mobile midwifery clinics that travel to surrounding villages.
"There are really common things that cause women and babies to die," Heatwole says. "Babies die of neonatal tetanus, which is 100 percent preventable. Women die of hemorrhage, which can be stopped immediately." Heatwole says that having medical professionals on-hand during childbirth can make a huge difference in preventing mother and baby deaths.
Kathy Faw, a cardiology nurse at Bon Secours Memorial Regional Medical Center, has felt a passion for work in Haiti since she first traveled there as a nursing student with Bon Secours Memorial College of Nursing in 2003. She recently completed her 35th visit. Faw has led numerous trips to Haiti for Bon Secours nursing students, who worked in mobile clinics. Then, a little more than two years ago, she established the nonprofit Patricia Sullivan Haitian Outreach Foundation, named in her mother's honor.
Donations to the organization have allowed Faw, a Mechanicsville resident, to pay salaries for the staff at a one-room school, then transform its makeshift, banana leaf building into a four-room school building that accommodates 300 students in Mirebalais, in the lower plateau of Haiti. The foundation's funds also provide the students — a third of whom are refugees — with a source of clean water and a bathroom facility, Faw says. She regularly teaches health classes at the school and gives the students albendazole, a medication to treat worms.
Faw's most recent project is raising money for a self-sustaining water-filtering system in Domond, to help deal with the cholera situation as well as provide jobs.
"People wait in line for hours to get water," Faw says. "There is nothing else available other than river water and holes where they get water from. … It will serve a community of over 50,000 people."