International Medical Corps Helps Haiti in its Long Haul
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
International Medical Corps is a model for global not-for-profits, with a plan that goes way beyond drop-in disaster relief. In Haiti, IMC is training locals, building communities, and doing everything it can to put itself to pasture.
Dan Khodabakhsh doesn’t require a whole lot of sleep. It’s perfectly normal, in fact, for the 33-year-old doctor to work a double shift bandaging up drunks and pulling bullets from teenagers in the emergency room of UCLA’s Harbor Medical Center before driving home, scarfing down some takeout, and setting the alarm to wake up five hours later and do it all over again. Every other month or so, Khodabakhsh changes the routine: Instead of going home, he drives to the airport, hops a red-eye to Miami, transfers to Port-au-Prince, and heads directly to some ill-lit clinic in some dusty Haitian town. But one morning last December, stepping out into the chaos and glare of Toussaint Louverture Airport, he was told by his supervisor that he would be skipping the clinic and traveling instead to the city of Les Cayes. The country’s nascent cholera epidemic had begun to migrate south, and it was moving fast.
Arriving at the coastal city’s main hospital, Khodabakhsh didn’t know where to look first. The makeshift Cholera Treatment Center consisted of two tents erected in a low-lying area, and the previous night’s rainwater was pooled around the legs of its few rickety cots. Bedless patients slumped against a short concrete wall running the length of the tents, awaiting the handful of doctors and nurses wading through the water. The pharmacy and triage areas were flooded, drums of liquid cholera waste were accumulating in the back, and the tents were sweltering–not exactly ideal conditions for victims of a disease that kills by draining the body of fluids.
Within 72 hours of his arrival, Khodabakhsh and his Haitian colleagues had treated more than 200 patients in that cramped space. Between scrambling to find more cots and cut holes in them (a plastic bucket placed beneath each would catch the bodily waste), meeting with community leaders who had ridden down from the hills on donkeys for lessons in hand-washing and administration of oral-rehydration solutions, and hounding UNICEF for additional supplies, Khodabakhsh was sleeping about four hours a night. Looking back, he says today, that was probably the sanest part of that particular stint with International Medical Corps (IMC), the nongovernmental organization with which he regularly works. The next few days involved barricading himself in a hotel room while outside an angry mob fired shots in response to unhappy election results; being evacuated by machine-gun-wielding UN soldiers; traveling the streets in what felt like slow motion as the military vehicle he was in navigated around dozens of flaming tires; and eventually being helicoptered back to the capital.