University of Calgary

Postcard from Haiti: Medical relief in earthquake’s wake

UToday HomeFebruary 22, 2013

Dr. Spencer McLean, a fifth-year resident in orthopedics at the University of Calgary, recently returned from a week-long medical service at Bernard Mevs Hospital Project Medishare in Port-au-Prince.

McLean travelled to Haiti with a group of 22 surgeons, physicians and nurses, including fellow fifth-year residents Dr. Prism Schneider and Dr. Paul Cantle. The team from the Foothills Medical Centre was part of Team Broken Earth, a non-profit organization of Canadian healthcare professionals providing medical assistance to Haiti's earthquake victims.

McLean and his fellow residents received funding from the Faculty of Medicine's Haiti Disaster Relief account to participate in this international experience.

Q: Why did you choose to pursue this experience?

A: I was approached by our team leader, Dr. Paul Duffy, back in June when he was initially organizing the trip. Until this trip, I had never done any work in a developing country and I was intrigued by the opportunity to work in the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished country. Given the relative wealth of resources we have in Alberta for health care, I was excited for the challenge of trying to provide care where resources were probably minimal at best.

Q: What were you expecting going in?

A: The truth is, I didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, Broken Earth had been working in Haiti for nearly three years so I felt relatively well prepared for the working conditions. We were briefed on the limitations that we would face in regards to providing critical care for trauma victims such as no blood bank, only one CT scanner in the country, only three working ventilators in the country, etc. Also, we were going to be near areas of Port-au-Prince that had travel advisories posted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade due to the unstable and dangerous security situation.

To make matters worse, the media reported that the Canadian government was cutting off aid to Haiti due to lack of progress since the earthquake. This brought up two concerns in my mind: one, how bad must it be if there has been no appreciable progress; and two, how would a group of Canadians be received?

Q: What did you experience while you were there to either support or challenge those expectations?

A: As soon as we hit the ground, the poverty of the country became apparent. Many buildings were in a major state of disrepair and people were trying to make a living by selling whatever they could on the side of the street.

I think everyone on our team had a moment of “what have we gotten ourselves into” when we arrived at the hospital. The emergency department consisted of a triage tent and three beds, the ICU had four beds, the adult in-patient unit had nine beds, the isolation unit had four beds, the pediatrics unit had about six beds, and there was a small neonatal ICU. That was the level 1 trauma centre for a population of almost 2.5 million. However, we quickly integrated ourselves with the local Haitians who worked at the hospital. They were incredibly helpful, hard working, and welcoming.

Q: What was the most memorable part of your experience?

A: The Haitian people. They are some of the most stoic and proud people that I have ever met.

Q: How will the experience affect your ongoing medical training/future professional plans?

A: I had never really considered doing humanitarian work prior to this trip. Frankly, I just had never sought out the opportunity to do so. After being a member of Team Broken Earth Calgary, I hope to continue to play a role in future trips to Haiti. We’re hoping to make this an annual trip and hopefully we will be able to play a continued role in helping the Haitian people.


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