By Orly Avitzur, MD, MBA, FAAN
Even before the devastation from the earthquake that struck on January 12, medical supplies were scant and simply not available in some parts of Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. Neurologists who traveled to the country saw first-hand the dire need for medications, medical personnel, and basic equipment.
"Unless you have been there to witness the poverty and disarray before the earthquake, it is hard to imagine the state of Haiti now," said Norwich, CT, neurologist Anthony G. Alessi, MD, FAAN, a 2004 Palatucci Advocacy Leadership Forum (PALF) graduate and subsequent mentor and advisor. Alessi has been to Haiti three times over the past 16 months as part of a medical team working with the Norwich-based Haitian Health Foundation (HHF).
He told Neurology Today that he is currently trying to get transportation to Haiti to serve at the HHF clinic in Jeremie located 280 kilometers from Port-au-Prince where he has participated in medical missions in the past. He anticipates that many survivors will flee the capital city to surrounding areas like Jeremie.
"The area is already overcrowded and we need to start refugee planning measures as soon as possible," Alessi said. As a volunteer neurologist for the HHF, he intends to care for patients with head injuries and seizures as well as provide basic care.
Alessi is not the only member of his family to have a special tie with Haiti. His 23-year-old daughter, Stephanie, who has just started medical school at St. George's University in nearby Grenada after having completed her master's degree in public health, recently returned from Jeremie. She had been there for six weeks working with the HHF under the supervision of their director of public health, going into rural, mountain villages for monthly health posts, where she focused mainly on maternal health.
Both Stephanie and her father spoke of the distressing lack of infrastructure in Haiti and the dearth of public services. While Stephanie was living in Jeremie, for example, there was a big fire in a downtown store and a Haitian friend of hers went to help put it out. "I learned that the fire department in this region sells their water, so they never have any on reserve to fight fires, which almost always must be put out by the local citizens exclusively," she said.
Medical care in Haiti lacks the resources and technology that the developed basic diagnostic tools and techniques are scarce.
Stephanie is excited to complete her medical degree and return to Haiti to bring more meaningful medical relief. She has been in contact with the other American volunteers she had worked with who are still in Jeremie, and they've reported imminent food shortages to their area and the rest of the country because of the transportation challenges caused by the earthquake.
"Transportation throughout Haiti has always been a major problem due to the lack of paved roads, and this earthquake has worsened that situation," she said.
For more stories about neurology's mission in Haiti and the response to the Jan. 12 earthquake, check back with Neurology Today Online and the upcoming print editions of Neurology Today.