Within hours of the devastating earthquake which struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, Montclair State University Health Center Director Donna Barry received a telephone call she did not expect. She and her fellow New Jersey 1 Disaster Medical Team (NJ1DMAT) members were being deployed to Haiti to provide medical care to earthquake victims—and they were to be ready to leave the next day.
As a member of NJ1DMAT, Barry is prepared to deploy with her team at a moment’s notice but she was not expecting to be sent to Haiti. “It surprised me since our group was created to respond to domestic disasters, not international incidents,” she says. “But the magnitude of the devastation and the urgency of the need for medical care warranted using DMAT teams from across the country.”
DMATs function within the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), and are administered by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. These elite medical groups are comprised of EMTs, RNs, NPs, physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, and psychologists, as well as security, logistics, and communication specialists. They travel with all the supplies and equipment needed to set up a medical station at their destination without assistance from other resources.
Barry and her team landed in Port-au-Prince a day later and were transported—by dump trucks—to the U.S. Embassy compound under the escort of soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “The soldiers provided our security and become an integral part of our medical mission,” says Barry. “They took their assignment seriously and performed superbly – all the while demonstrating compassion and kindness to the Haitian people. It was one of my proudest moments in life to work side by side with our troops.”
NJIDMAT’s final destination and the place where they set up their medical operation was the Petionville Club, a golf club set high on a hill above Port-au-Prince where the 82nd Airborne had already created a base for the distribution of humanitarian aid. At the bottom of the hill was a huge tent city, the largest in Port-au-Prince, now home to around 30,000 earthquake victims.
“The base of our medical operation consisted of two tents about 100 feet from the Army’s helicopter landing zone and a triage tent,” says Barry. “Each day young Haitian men from the tent encampment below would climb the steep hill to volunteer as translators or carry patients back and forth. Their stamina and determination to help was inspiring.”
That kind of inspiration helped keep the team going although they were working in conditions that few of them had ever before imagined possible. They were confronted by oppressive heat, earthquake aftershocks, no power, no running water, no existing healthcare system, limited supplies, and were surrounded on all sides by devastation and suffering. The noise of helicopters landing and taking off was unending, and everywhere, the air was permeated by the putrid smell of burning garbage, tires, and human remains.
Despite the conditions, the team worked tirelessly to help those in need, often improvising treatments or fashioning equipment that simply wasn’t available. For example, newborn incubators were built out of reflective heater blankets and food heater bags from the military’s MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat), the team’s sole food source, and baby bottles were created out of bottled water containers and vinyl gloves.
“Patients didn’t have medical records – just a sticky note on their chest from the triage tent with the chief complaint, age, and sex,” recalls Barry. “In the rare instance that a patient was transferred to another medical station, we taped a piece of paper on their chest with the critical information listed on it.”
In addition to treating patients at the Petionville medical operating, another component of their mission was to send out “strike teams” of two to four medical personnel—together with a military escort—into various encampments throughout Port-au-Prince. These teams walked from tent to tent in search of the critically ill. “Most of the care was given on the spot with wound care, antibiotic, and pain management being the most common need,” says Barry. “The Haitian people greeted us with expressions of relief and gratitude, and frequently led us to community members in need of care.”
Barry estimates that she and her teammates successfully treated upwards of 600 people daily during the 17 days of their deployment. “We did the best we could in an extremely difficult situation and I truly believe we made a significant difference and touched the lives of many Haitian people,” she says of her experience. “I know they definitely touched my life in more ways than I have yet begun to understand.”
Share her experience in photos.