Area team was expected to arrive in Haiti to lend a hand

Nurse practitioner Sally Bethart, center, along with Dr. Robert Melosh, right, and Dr. David Risch, left, fill a case with medical supplies to provide medical relief to victims of the Haiti earthquake as a team of University of Florida doctors and nurses prepare to fly to Croix des Bouquets, Haiti at the Gainesville Regional Airport General Aviation facility on Saturday, January 16, 2010.

Aaron E. Daye/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 11:42 p.m.

A team of public health and medical professionals from the University of Florida and area communities scrambled to prepare for a trip to Haiti Saturday.

The operation was spearheaded by Michael Perri, dean of UF's College of Public Health and Health Professions, and Edsel Redden, an IFAS extension agent who has been traveling to Haiti for more than 20 years.

For the UF team and other aid groups attempting to assist in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, the biggest hurdle is getting there. Redden worked with the U.S. Southern Command, which is coordinating the Department of Defense's response to the crisis in Haiti, to get space for 10 people and supplies aboard military transport.

Perri said they got the call from Southern Command at 4 p.m. Friday, asking if the group could be at the airport and ready to go by 8 a.m.

Perri told them yes, and the team began quickly assembling medical supplies, bandages, antibiotics, painkillers, antiseptics ... as many of the things they'd need as possible on short order.

They were in the parking lot of the charter air center at the Gainesville Regional Airport by 7:30 Saturday morning. In a drizzling rain, they sealed up boxes and containers of supplies while they waited for two helicopters to pick them up. At noon, they were still waiting.

The unofficial military term is "snafu."

In midmorning, someone high up the ranks at Southern Command reported that two Blackhawk helicopters were indeed ready to take them into Port-au-Prince. Unfortunately, those helicopters were waiting in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The team awaited word in the crowded lobby of the charter air center for hours.

Finally, later Saturday, the decision was made for the team to fly by commercial flight today to Santo Domingo, where a U.S. military plane would ferry them into Haiti. Team members then spent Saturday afternoon gathering more supplies they could use in Haiti.

Once on the ground in Port-au-Prince today, the group will head to a location close to the airport, where Double Harvest (an agricultural/medical/educational mission) reports they have two operating suites ready to go, but no surgeons or nurses to staff them.

Orthopedic surgeon David Risch and general surgeon Robert Molsh expect to set up shop as soon as they get there. They already know they have patients waiting. Internist John Gaines and emergency medicine specialist David Meurer are prepared to see the nonsurgical cases. Meurer worked all night Friday in the emergency department at Shands, then caught a little sleep in a lobby chair while waiting for word on the flight to Haiti.

The second objective of the team is to reach another mission community, Christianville, located in the rural town of Gressier about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince. Redden has been working with the mission to set up agricultural, chicken and fish farming operations.

The chickens produce eggs for breakfast, and the farm-raised tilapia are grilled for lunch.

An American couple, Jim and Sandy Wilkins, operate a small clinic at Christianville that typically sees 130 people a day. Redden expects it is overrun with refugees needing medical care at this point.

Perri said that only five deaths have been reported at Christianville, three of them children. The school has collapsed, as have the medical and eye clinics. A diesel generator provides intermittent power and a well supplies water.

Two days ago, Jim and Sandy Wilkins sent out a desperate plea for medical assistance and supplies. Still, Perri noted, "They are better off than most in Haiti right now."

The dean explained that part of the mission of any college of public health is global health. The UF team plans to do a needs assessment while in Haiti, not just of what is needed right now, but in the months and years to come.

Slange Celeste will assist with that assessment. She'll also serve as the group's translator. Haitian-born, she speaks both French and Creole.

For Celeste, the trip is more than just a humanitarian effort.

Her mother and grandmother, both of whom live close to the quake's fault line, have not been heard from since Tuesday.

At least she can be there, Celeste said Saturday. At least she can help in some way.

"I pray that someone is helping my mom in the same way I will be helping others," she added.

AAron E. Daye/Staff photographer

nz011710docs.jpgAaron E. Daye

Registered nurse Sally Bethart, center, Dr. Robert Melosh, right, and Dr. David Risch fill a case with medical supplies for victims of the Haiti earthquake at the Gainesville Regional Airport on Saturday.

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