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Virginia organizations form health-care volunteer group

Virginia organizations use earthquake experience to plan emergency response

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Print this page by Marjolijn Bijlefeld

In January, Lisbet Hanson, a Virginia Beach-based ob/gyn, was teaching ultrasound techniques to doctors in Haiti, when the ground began to shake. Her group hurried to leave the building, which quickly lost power and telephone connections. “We would get bits and pieces of news,” she says, as word spread about the devastating earthquake. They canceled the rest of the training and rolled up their sleeves to help where they could in relief efforts. Hanson even delivered several babies as women went into premature labor from the stress.

At home, her husband, cardiologist John Kenerson, began working the phone to get news about her. The couple has been volunteering in Haiti since 2005, so they’ve come to know some of the organizations that work there. Through workers in Haiti at Operation Blessing, the Virginia Beach-based humanitarian group, he learned Hanson was unhurt. Soon she was posting messages on her Facebook page about the desperate need in Haiti for surgeons, anesthesiologists, orthopedic doctors and prosthetic devices.

In Richmond, Beth Bortz, executive director of the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation, fielded phone calls from doctors prepared to charter planes to get to Haiti. Bortz told them to stay home until she knew they could travel safely to a specific destination that had supplies. “There was a tremendous outpouring from the physician community from those who wanted to volunteer,” she says. “But it’s harder than one might think [to coordinate doctors with the places they were needed].”
As she was working the phones, Bortz says, “I kept thinking that someone must have this information.” No one did, so her office became a de facto clearinghouse as the need to coordinate efforts became more obvious.

In the hours and days after the earthquake, a coalition of Virginia-based providers was formed. In fact, the coordination proved so impressive, the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation is now establishing a clearinghouse of physician volunteers. It received a $25,000 grant from Riverside Health System to jumpstart the process, as well as support from IBM to help with database system development.

The process actually began before the earthquake. About a year ago, Ron Scon-yers, president and CEO of Norfolk-based Physicians for Peace, called a meeting on Haiti. Physicians for Peace dispatches physicians to train health-care providers in other countries. Kenerson and Hanson were at the Norfolk meeting, as was Bill Horan, president and CEO of Operation Blessing, and Dr. William Magee, co-founder and CEO of Operation Smile, a Norfolk-based international charity that provides surgeries to repair cleft palates.

Each organization’s representatives identified the strengths it could bring to Haiti. The group didn’t realize how quickly their ideas would shift into action.

After the earthquake, Bortz, for example, posted notices to Virginia’s physician community, asking for volunteers willing to commit to helping for two weeks to staff the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship. Operation Blessing handled a lot of the logistics, moving medical teams in and out of the country. “We had hundreds of thousands of bottles of water shipped in on the USNS Sacajawea, and one of the stipulations was that relief effort workers had to bring their own water,” Horan says. Sometimes, supplies for relief efforts languish in airports. “One of the things we’re good at is taking the supplies that last tactical mile.” The organization’s role has been what Horan calls the low-tech, practical solutions, such as bringing generators for electricity and water-filtration systems.

Physicians for Peace started asking for prostheses and gathered enough to nearly fill 30,000 square feet of warehouse space that had been provided by Hampton Roads Moving and Storage. Donated prostheses were broken down for their component parts and shipped out as needed.

A member of Operation Smile’s board of governors, Jerry Moyes of Phoenix-based Swift Transportation, provided a 737 jet to transport people and supplies. “We have an office in Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic, so we were able to ask them to buy oxygen canisters we could take with us,” says Magee. “We even called the first lady to help us get landing rights and diplomatic immunity for the cargo,” he says. Because so many of these groups had a base in Haiti — the most underdeveloped country in the Western Hemisphere — they were able to mine those connections and good ill.

Magee says the experience shows how much information is needed to plan for an emergency. “If you’re pre-organized by skill set, you would be ready to respond in virtually any emergency. If it’s an earthquake or crush injuries, we’d have orthopedic equipment and doctors; if it’s a major fire, we would have the skin grafting equipment ready to ship and a delta force of volunteers ready to go,” he says. “In fact, I’m surprised no one has done that already.”
Bortz says nearly two dozen Virginia physicians went to Haiti in the two months after the earthquake, most staying for at least 10 days. There’s still plenty of need, she says, especially in rehabilitation. But the way these groups came together swiftly and efficiently made them realize they might have a model for doing good work more locally. By creating a volunteer registry, the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation could dispatch doctors and health workers to disasters around the state.

To support the ongoing needs in Haiti, the foundation is working on a simple English/Creole dictionary to help volunteers communicate better, and Virginia medical schools are looking for ways to help train new Haitian health-care providers (many medical and nursing students were killed during the earthquake).

The foundation wants to continue being an important link, helping to identify, screen and credential the volunteers and the medical sites — in Virginia and in Haiti. “The first month was crisis management; now we’re looking at the longer term,” Bortz says.

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