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Diana Jenkins

Diana Jenkins

Posted: January 25, 2010 07:38 PM

Among the Building Blocks in Haiti: Tetanus Shots and Prosthetics

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- In less than a week on the ground here, volunteer medical teams from the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization have treated more than 4,000 patients and distributed more than 20,000 pounds of desperately needed supplies -- from antibiotics and wound care kits to 4,000 water filters. Another 270 palettes of supplies are scheduled to arrive tomorrow.

Today alone our teams fanned out across refugee camps in and around the capital. One team of 11 established a makeshift clinic and saw 240 patients -- including a woman whose foot was saved from amputation because we were able to arrange transport to a hospital. Others went from tent to tent, treating wounds and seeking out critical patients in need of more intensive care.

It was an incredibly successful day.

But for every person we help, there seems to be 100 others still in dire need. That captures the enormity of the crisis in Haiti, where tens of thousands of people crowd into unsanitary refugee camps and true recovery is years away. It will require not just the reconstruction homes and schools and hospitals, but things like tetanus shots and prosthetics to prevent Haiti from faltering.

As our teams offered aid, we encountered unspeakable desperation alongside unimaginable kindness. Volunteers in our group -- a collaboration of my Sanela Diana Jenkins Foundation and actor Sean Penn -- were taken aback by both.

Prior to coming to Haiti, volunteer nurse Sat Hari from Los Angeles said she watched television coverage of the disaster and felt certain it would be a dangerous assignment. "I was terrified, fearing for my life," she said. Instead, she's been overwhelmed by Haitians' kindness and graciousness in even the most difficult circumstances. "People are so loving and positive," she said.

Hari spent much of the past few days treating patients in refugee camps. Many had serious wounds that had either never been treated or were examined once with no follow-up care. "We're cleaning them up and re-bandaging them," Hari said. "We're letting them know we're here and that we're helping."

The camps, though, present significant health challenges of their own. There is little sanitation. Sewage and garbage fester in the open. The threat of disease grows by the day. Volunteer Dr. Dallas Bailes from Austin, Texas, said diseases like tetanus, rare in developed countries, will be a "major factor going forward because people are not vaccinated and they've got tons of wounds."

It's seemingly mundane things like tetanus shots that will help make the difference between Haiti recovering and languishing for a generation or more. Small groups like Jenkins-Penn were able to move swiftly in the first weeks after the quake. We work closely with other organizations and operate as a "relief provider to relief providers" by rapidly putting people and supplies where they are most needed. We dispatched teams and supplies for our base, a tent camp set up on a tennis court next to the Army's 82nd Airborne. For days, our doctors essentially ran the emergency room at St. Damien's hospital and troops from the 82nd helped us deliver aid to some of those in greatest need.

Our actions surely saved lives and eased suffering. But it will require governments and other aid organizations to demonstrate the same sort of rapid, situation-based decision-making over the next several years if Haiti is to recover. Today's multinational conference in Montreal is a good start to coordinate Haiti's long-term recovery efforts, but that focus must remain long after dramatic stories of rescue and tragedy fall off the front page.

That's because what lies ahead is detailed, difficult and often does not fit neatly into the standardized buckets of international economic development. For example, Haiti now faces the prospect of a generation of amputees.

"Thousands of Haitians are having their limbs cut off," said Dr. Bailes, noting that the primitive conditions often leave doctors no choice. Without prosthetics enabling these amputees to find productive work, they will be condemned to lives of poverty even if development restores some amount of opportunity to Haiti.

Development cannot come soon enough. Conditions are intolerable and Haitians continue to die needlessly. Just a few days ago, a one-year-old boy was brought into the hospital with burns over 72 percent of his body. He was burned by the open stove his family used for cooking in the tent that is now their home.

He died within 90 minutes of arriving -- another heartbreak in a country that has known too much.