Humanity, Health Care and Haitian Disaster Relief

Appeared in: Nurse Together

By: Karen Wolf

On January 12, an earthquake registering 7.0 struck outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Haiti, a small, Caribbean island nation of only 27, 700 km, which shares the island with the Dominican Republic, is one of the closest neighbors of the United States.  Haiti is also one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere.  With a life expectancy of 52 and infant mortality at 76 per 1000 (World Bank), the earthquake that hit the capital region on January 13, 2009 added a devastating blow to an already burdened nation.

As a nurse working in the Boston areas for many years, I came to appreciate the strength of the Haitian people in the Boston Haitian Diaspora.  Natural disasters, along with economic and political instability, contributed to the emigration of the Haitian people across the globe.  Boston became a center for thousands of Haitian families, many with families still left behind in their home country.   I worked side by side with Haitian health care providers, became friends with, and took care of, many Haitian patients.  In recent years, I was proud to educate and graduate Haitian nursing students to become nurses and nurse practitioners at the MGH Institute of Health Professions.

Like most educators, I learned from my students.  A number of my former students dedicated to goals of promoting global health, traveled to Haiti to help bring health care to this underserved nation.  Their compassion, activism and willingness to travel to Haiti taught me about the problems of children left orphaned by the devastation of TB and HIV, as well as the challenges of Dengue fever and infantile diarrhea.  

In his book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder describes the challenge Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, faced in establishing health care programs in rural Haiti.  The Haitian countryside, deforested to make charcoal for cooking stoves, became mudslide prone after hurricanes, and left roads and villages all too often inaccessible.  Just when you would think that this proud nation could not suffer more, the earthquake hit.

Nurse Practitioner, Donna Barry, staff member of Partners in Health, describes the problems that relief organizations face in the wake of the earthquake.  She reports that Partners in Health has been working in Haiti for over twenty years, and is trying to assist in coordinating relief efforts by setting up health clinics near the earthquake ridden area of Port-au-Prince.  Partners in Health has maintained a strong rural health program and was less devastated than those non-governmental agencies located primarily in the capital city.  It is estimated that more than 50,000 people may have perished in the region surrounding Port-au-Prince.  Hospitals, along with countless homes and other buildings, have collapsed, and the shortage of rescue resources, water, food, and the means to deal with the wounded and the dead, are leading to an even greater emergency.

Over the next few days, the need for assistance will grow exponentially as the enormity of the earthquake's toll is better understood.  Agencies such as Partners in Health are beginning the process of registering health care workers who are willing to go to Haiti.  Health care providers with language capabilities in Haitian Creole or French, along with disaster, emergency, and/or surgical/trauma expertise, are particularly sought.  This is "one drop in the bucket" but the call to health care workers and humanity to respond must be heeded.

This is a partial listing of agencies providing Haiti earthquake relief in the US:

For persons qualified to volunteer:

  • Email to with information on your credentials, language capabilities (Haitian Creole or French desired), availability, and contact information.  See the information on the Partners in Health Website at
  • The U.S. State Department asks that persons who wish to provide assistance or expertise in Haiti contact the Center for International Disaster Information.  The Center, operated under a grant from the United States Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, has established a dedicated page to coordinate Haiti support at:



About the Author: Karen Anne Wolf PhD, RN, ANP-BC, FNA is Associate Professor at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, CA.


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