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Winnipeg health-care staff head to Haiti

Exploring partnerships and education are priorities

From left: Michael Limerick, Erin Little and Lise Cloutier are part of a group of 20 health professionals going to Haiti.
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Winnipeggers in Haiti

BY ANDREA BODIE
Winnipeg Health Region
Updated Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A group of 20 Winnipeg medical professionals have arrived in Haiti, ready to deliver primary care and support local doctors and nurses.

The group, headed by nurse practitioner Mike Limerick, includes 15 nurses, four medical students and one physician. They arrived in the city of Jeremie today, March 22, and will work at a local hospital and clinic for up to two weeks.

“There’s definitely a huge need that existed long before the 2010 earthquake and will most likely continue for decades to come,” says Limerick, who works at the Health Sciences Centre's Emergency Department. “The possibilities to contribute are endless.”

Limerick, who volunteered to work in Haiti in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 2010, decided to organize this year’s trip after colleagues and associates learned of his volunteer work and expressed an interest in joining him, should he return to the country.

“I was really taken aback by the interest. I find that most people working in health care want to volunteer and are excited about the opportunities to contribute in these stressful environments. I am now receiving support from dentistry/dental hygiene about our next mission.”

While more than 100 Winnipeg health-care providers expressed an interest in joining him on the trip, there wasn’t room for everyone. “We could only take a maximum of 20 down with accommodation and booking flights,” explains Limerick. “It would be great to go multiple times a year with a number of different people.”

The majority of the health-care providers going to Haiti work at the Health Sciences Centre and all are paying for the trip out of their own pocket. The Winnipeg volunteers aim to support the existing health-care system in Haiti, through direct care in primary and tertiary settings, and through continuing medical/nursing education. Limerick says he also hopes to explore creating a partnership with hospitals and schools in Jeremie. “The goal is to go back and create something sustainable.”

Along with providing direct care in a government-run hospital, the plan is also to help educate staff. The need for this was pointed out during his last trip.

“The nursing schools were all destroyed. Treating patients is a drop in the bucket. Education is what will help people in the long run,” says Limerick. “I’m very nervous but I’m also very excited to be bringing 20 people. I hope we can do a lot of teaching and really have an impact.”

The type of education needed in Haiti became clear to Limerick during an evening with physicians after a long day of treating patients. While a colleague presented on pelvic bleeding it became clear more basic information needed to be shared when a Haitian doctor’s solution to rousing an unconscious patient was to pour water in their mouth. “There was genuine interest in learning ‘the recovery position’,” he says. “I realized that certification in Basic Life Support, First Aid, Advanced Cardiac Life Support and Pediatric Advanced Life Support would be an excellent beginning. This is one of our primary goals next week.” 

Everyone in the group has prepared two topics to present to hospital and clinic staff. This means that, along with seeing and treating patients, the group has the chance to deliver up to 40 presentations during their stay in Jeremie. Limerick is excited about the potential impact this can have for Haitians.

To help support these ideas, Limerick approached the Lifesaving Society of Manitoba. He purchased airway masks and mannequins, which he’ll bring with him on this trip. To help address the language barrier, local translators have been hired to assist in interpreting English to French to Haitian Creole – he is bringing large laminated posters communicating CPR basics with pictures.

He’ll also bring two water purification kits that are solar powered. The plan is to leave them in the hospital clinic and school. “A lot of people would argue that without basic necessities, providing health care is futile, and we would have to agree. We struggle with daunting challenges that extreme poverty has on people and how to effect to greatest change. Thank goodness Haitians are so resilient. They’re really appreciative and happy people,” says Limerick.

Purchasing these tools to take on their trip was a personal decision these health-care professionals made. Like their plane tickets, these purchases were made out of pocket. Some financial support was provided by informal fund-raising done largely through word of mouth.

Limerick first volunteered to go to Haiti in following the 2010 earthquake at the invitation of Dr. Ron Maier, who also works at the Health Sciences Centre. Maier’s babysitter is the daughter of Pierre Jonais, a Haitian Canadian who is also the founder of Project Teach. When the earthquake struck Haiti, Jonais organized a group of teachers, social workers, city planners and public health officials to go to Haiti. Among the people he invited was Dr. Maier, who in turn asked Limerick.

“I believe Ron was given a week’s notice and in turn asked me to accompany him on the mission organized by Pierre [Jonais]. Ron and I had no idea what to expect or what we just signed up to do. I was given three days notice,” says Limerick. “Of course I jumped at the opportunity to help.”

Sarah Kessleman, a nursing student who will graduate this year, echoes that sentiment. “It’s a great opportunity to learn from so many different people, experience a different culture and a different health care system. I’m really excited about this trip,” she says.

Limerick’s choice to go in 2010 was enthusiastically supported by Laverne Sturtevant, the Director of Emergency at HSC. His wife Katy, who was pregnant at the time, was also supportive of Limerick making the trip. This support was integral, given what Limerick faced when he arrived in Haiti. “A trip like this is life changing,” says Limerick. “Last time was very emotional. It was very tiring.”

He says arriving in Haiti felt like he was landing in a war zone. “There were United Nations trucks everywhere, crowds of non-governmental organizations organizing themselves and destruction everywhere. A man through the metal bars separating the Haitian crowds from the airport told me he could not understand why he was unable to keep his balance and then the concrete on the street began moving like a wave. When it stopped, the screaming began and the city disappeared in the dust from the fallen buildings,” recalls Limerick.

Haitian staff welcomed their arrival with open arms and immediately put them to work. As he and Maier jumped in, Limerick says they were already subconsciously planning what they were going to do the next time they came back. “From two people to 20 now, we have a lot planned,” he says. “Maybe we are too ambitious but we are not lacking in dedication and compassion.”

How you can help

The Health Sciences Centre Foundation is collecting donations to support the efforts of 20 Winnipeg health-care providers who are headed to Haiti. Visit www.hscfoundation.mb.ca and click on the “One Time Gift icon. Then use the “I would like to direct my gift to” drop down menu to find “Emergency Doctors Relief.”  All funds will be directed to purchasing medications and educational materials.

Winnipeggers in Haiti

Dr. Pierre Plourde, a Medical Officer of Health for the Winnipeg Health Region, has also led volunteer teams of Winnipeggers to Haiti.

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