Earthquake survivors treated in Philadelphia

The first Haitian residents flown to the United States for medical care are being treated at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, due to an enormous effort from a second-year medical student, a team of doctors and a nonprofit organization.

On Sunday, Jan. 17, three women and a four-year-old boy, accompanied by his father, were flown from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince to Philadelphia for treatment. Naomi Rosenberg, a student at Penn’s School of Medicine and a volunteer with the Boston-based nonprofit Partners In Health, spearheaded an effort to get these survivors of the Haitian earthquake to HUP and CHOP.

“Because they were able to come here and [because of the] massive outpouring of support, we’ll be able to send them home with a little more than they arrived with,” says Rosenberg.

Getting four patients from Haiti to Philadelphia required incredible coordination on the part of Penn and Partners In Health. Rosenberg, who worked for PIH founder Paul Farmer before coming to Penn as a student, has remained involved with the nonprofit here in Philadelphia. After the earthquake, she reached out to Richard Shannon, Penn professor and chair of the Department of Medicine, to ask if HUP would be willing to take patients. With the help of U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who put PIH in touch with the Department of Homeland Security and USAID, PIH was able to secure a one-time waiver for a flight into Haiti. Once they received the go-ahead, a Medivac plane (donated to PIH), flew down to Port-au-Prince. The PIH medical director selected four patients who were in dire need of medical care, and were also strong enough to make the trip to HUP and CHOP.

All of the Haitian residents had what Rosenberg calls “crush” injuries, from buildings and debris shaken loose during the earthquake. The patients being treated at HUP include a 21-year-old woman who required amputation of a leg above the knee; a 27-year-old woman with a bad fracture who required amputation below the knee; and a 31-year-old woman whose foot and ankle had to be amputated. The fourth patient, a four-year-old boy, who was accompanied by his father, is being treated at CHOP for an open fracture and skin and muscle loss.

Had they stayed in Haiti, Rosenberg says, they would have not likely survived.

It’s unclear how long the patients will remain in Philadelphia. The prognoses are good and, as of right now, all patients are expected to be able to walk again with the aid of prosthetics.

But their needs are still great. The Haitians arrived with just the clothes on their backs, says Rosenberg, and aren’t carrying any identification. The Philadelphia Community of Concern, a local chapter of Partners In Health, has been instrumental in providing everything from clothing and lotion to soothe the patients’ dry skin, to toys for the four-year-old boy.

Rosenberg says other area organizations are pitching in to help connect the survivors with the local Haitian community, including the Samuel Dalembert Foundation, the charitable group started by the Philadelphia 76er, and the First Haitian Church of God, located at 62nd Street and Lancaster Avenue.

Two of the women at HUP have children back home in Haiti—one is the mother of four kids, and another is a mother to three. “Being here is not ideal [for them],” says Rosenberg. “We tell them, ‘You need to get strong to take good care of your children.’ This means [there are] seven children who are not orphaned.”

Rosenberg says the sense of grief and helplessness is acute, and she’s found it difficult to be around so much suffering, especially since she hasn’t yet been socialized as a doctor. “We’re all doing the best we can, but it’s not easy.”

Rosenberg adds that Partners In Health is in a unique position to help the country with medical care, as well as school rebuilding, because the organization has been on the ground in Haiti for more than 20 years.

We’re happy to do anything we can,” she says. “Bearing witness to what happens in the world is what we can do from here.”

To offer support to the patients at HUP and CHOP, email the Philadelphia Community of Concern at philadelphia@pih.org.

Originally published Feb. 4, 2010

Originally published on February 4, 2010