Last Jan. 12, 2010, a friend stood me up for a drink at the last minute with this cryptic text message: "Sorry to cancel -- on a plane to Haiti tonight." I didn't know that afternoon why she was going to Haiti, but it's not unusual to get a message like that from my friend, Marge.
Margaret Aguirre is the Director of Global Communications for International Medical Corps, a global humanitarian aid organization based in Los Angeles. I soon learned that Margaret got on the last evacuation flight into Haiti on Jan. 13, 2010, the day after the 7.0 earthquake struck. She traveled with volunteer first-responder doctors and healthcare workers whom International Medical Corps had quickly deployed. They were on the ground delivering lifesaving medical care 22 hours after the earthquake -- just as the rest of us were learning about the unfathomable situation in Haiti from the nightly news.
I have been a volunteer with International Medical Corps for several years, but I am of the unskilled variety. I'm not a doctor or nurse or anything close to a health care worker; truth is I can barely clean a skinned knee on my kids without cringing. And the only thing I personally know about Disaster Response is how to explain why I missed an editorial deadline. Needless to say, I was not deployed to Haiti that night. Instead, I did what a lot of people did in response to the disaster: I gave money via text, called in a pledge for George's telethon, watched Sanjay and Anderson obsessively. But I couldn't shake the feeling -- like so many people I knew -- that I wanted to do more than just give money. I wanted to volunteer. And I still do. But how could I help?
Immediately following the earthquake, International Medical Corps mobilized specialist volunteers from major universities and hospitals across the U.S. -- experts in emergency medicine and more specifically those who could provide wound care and treat the crush injuries so common when buildings collapse. They quickly set up operations at the Hospital de Universite d'Etat d'Haiti (HUEH), the largest hospital in Port-au-Prince, and these volunteer doctors and nurses fought around the clock to save lives and heal the injured, seeing as many as 1,000 patients a day. The volunteers were ER doctors and nurses experienced in triage and trauma care. You may not have known it, but if you watched Anderson Cooper at all, you probably saw International Medical Corps at work. He often reported from their sites. Remember the little boy pulled from the rubble after eight days? Yup. International Medical Corps volunteers did that.
In the weeks and months after the quake, International Medical Corps began preparing for the outbreaks of infectious and waterborne diseases like malaria that were expected to come during rainy and hurricane seasons; the heightened concerns of malnutrition; and the mental health challenges many survivors were facing. International Medical Corps brought in their next wave of medical volunteers -- experienced emergency room, intensive care, and pediatric doctors and nurses, as well as mental health and communicable disease specialists. These volunteers treated victims and trained local Haitians during the emergency in order to start building capacity for the long-term.
Then an unexpected crisis hit Haiti: a cholera epidemic. Cholera was not what the international relief community anticipated. The disease had not existed in Haiti in as much as a century, so International Medical Corps switched gears and deployed a new wave of staff and volunteers with expertise in treating tropical and communicable diseases, and volunteers who had experience working in local communities, educating and training local workers to battle a disease they had not seen before. And no, they didn't call on me for any of these volunteer deployments either.
There is a Haitian proverb: "Beyond mountains there are mountains." It doesn't just describe the landscape in Haiti. In the year since the devastating earthquake in Haiti, it has come to describe the unyielding obstacles volunteers continue to face in Haiti week after week, month after month, and one year later. And a year later we find ourselves in the same place: the needs in Haiti are still so great, and the volunteers needed, so specialized. The mountains beyond mountains of this natural disaster continue to require skilled climbers -- qualified, specially-skilled volunteers. I won't be going to Haiti soon.
But I continue to support the expert International Medical Corps volunteers who are still needed there. You can too. Give what you can, yes, again, to International Medical Corps this Jan. 12 -- the anniversary of the Haiti earthquake -- so they can continue to do what they do best: save lives and build a healthy, sustainable future for Haiti.
Then take some time to volunteer locally for something you can do in your own city this week. Find a volunteer opportunity on iVolunteer.org. There are mountains here too.
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