Volunteers extend aid in wake of Haiti disaster

June 15, 2011

More than 5 months after a massive 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti and damaged much of its capital city, American ophthalmologists continue to reach out to help the people suffering there.

Under a coordinated effort by the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), University of Miami's Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, the Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology (PAAO), and the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad, more than a dozen ophthalmologists have traveled to spend several days or a week performing eye surgeries and meeting other medical needs ranging from amputations to craniotomies.

Immediately following the Jan. 12 earthquake, physicians encountered extreme working conditions, sleeping on tables, eating what limited food was available, working by candlelight when necessary in makeshift hospital rooms, and sleeping in giant open tents. Even as late as March, some worked by the light of a desk lamp. In most cases, they brought supplies with them, but they often didn't have access to everything they needed. When faced with obstacles, they improvised.

More than 217,000 people are estimated to have died in the earthquake, and more than 97,000 houses were destroyed, according to the World Health Organization. Two-thirds of the facilities in Port-au-Prince were rendered dysfunctional by the earthquake, he said, and the offices of the country's single retinal surgeon nearly collapsed.

During his visit, Dr. Brennan discovered that, although the need to rebuild is significant and of primary importance, American physicians also must offer a hand of friendship and support as colleagues, and work on building better long-term alliances. Dr. Brennan said he is working to secure donations of mobile eye exam and minor surgery kits, and to direct volunteers where they are most needed.

"It's materials first, [staffing] second, and continued professional relationships and some bridging of our academy with the Haitian Society of Ophthalmology through the PAAO," he said.