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Mildred M.G. Olivier, MD Headshot

Reflections on Haiti -- Two Years Out

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Shortly after the Haitian earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, my phone rang.

I was in my ophthalmology office outside of Chicago, when a patient called and told me to turn on the television. She knew I was no stranger to Haiti. As the daughter of Haitian parents who had immigrated to Chicago before I was born, I had maintained deep roots in Haiti from an early age. During her appointments, my patient and I often discussed my trips to the country, but that day her call caught me off guard.

When I turned on the television, I couldn't believe what I saw: terror, despair and destruction at an unprecedented level. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake had leveled much of the country, killing, injuring and trapping hundreds of thousands of people in the rubble. These were women, men and children whom I knew, people I had treated and cared deeply for over the last 18 years of my medical missions to the country.

Before I could begin to process what had happened, my inbox began to fill with emails. This time it was my colleagues in Haiti. People were coming to what was left of their homes seeking medical help, but there was little the doctors could do. Hospitals and clinics had been destroyed, taking vital equipment and medicine with them. They were running out of antibiotics, water and food and desperately needed help. Patients who could not receive care faced possible vision loss or blindness and a lifetime of associated challenges.

I left the cold of Chicago seven days later, arriving at the Haitian Community Hospital in Frères with a volunteer team of U.S. physicians. As an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor who specializes in eye care, I worked to provide immediate treatment for those injured. Preventing blindness and vision loss from earthquake-related injuries was a top priority for my team, which was funded by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology's (PAAO) Task Force on Haiti Recovery. Speaking both French and Creole, I was able to serve as broker between my Haitian medical colleagues and the wealth of medical support that was beginning to arrive in Haiti, directing resources to where they were needed most. These early donations included 14,000 pairs of reading glasses, surgical trays, equipment, and mobile medical units that doctors could use to treat patients in the field.

It's hard to believe that two years and my many trips to Haiti have gone by in the blink of an eye. The tent cities have finally diminished as more families have regained permanent homes. The parks are once again open so that the children can play soccer, and clinics once again have the medicines and equipment needed to treat common eye diseases, injuries and infections.

Thanks to the compassion and talent of colleagues like Richard Lee, MD, of Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, University of Miami School of Medicine, Michael Brennan, MD, former Academy president, Stephanie Marioneaux, MD, and Daniel Laroche, MD (who is also Haitian-American), over the last two years we've been able to save the sight of thousands of people in Haiti. Those individuals, who otherwise would have been blind or suffered serious vision loss, can now live fuller and more productive lives.

Our focus has now shifted from triage to strengthening the medical community's ability to treat and prevent the debilitating eye diseases that rob too many Haitians of their vision. To this day, we continue to see too many cases of glaucoma -- a disease that attacks the optic nerve, causing permanent vision loss -- sometimes in children as young as one year old. From the outside, we've been able to help build the capacity to better treat these diseases. But, to make sure patients will be able to get care when they need it at local clinics, our focus must move toward more global aspects of eye care in Haiti, including viable business models that will ensure broader access to safe, affordable eye care.

While the earthquake left my homeland damaged, Haiti continues to recover, galvanized by the generosity, compassion and support of the diverse mix of governments, NGOs, volunteer organizations, corporations and individuals who have come to its aid. This strong spirit is the very reason I went into medicine and why I remain hopeful about Haiti's future, two years out from the day that could have destroyed it.