Disasters often strike those who can bear it least. Shortly before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, that is exactly what happened to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck just southwest of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, and left the country in shambles.
Among the first to offer medical relief were physicians and scientists from the UF College of Medicine family. Some had a long history with the impoverished Caribbean island, and some traveled there for the first time. But like so many around the world, they felt a need to help, and so they brought their medical skills, their surgical expertise and their human compassion to the people of Haiti.
“I commend all the people who are going down there to provide medical care, donating clothes and food,” said Mark Atkinson, PhD ’88, shortly before leaving Gainesville Jan. 15 with a team of health-care workers familiar with disaster relief and delivering care in developing countries. “They need so much, but their greatest need now is hope.”
Atkinson is co-director of UF’s Diabetes Center of Excellence and an eminent scholar for diabetes research. He has traveled to Haiti since the 1990s, providing medical, dental and educational assistance, and had returned from the country less than one week before the earthquake, which killed a reported 250,000 people and left tens of thousands more injured and almost 1 million people homeless.
“The sounds and smells of Haiti are pretty disturbing,” Atkinson said after returning from his relief trip. “Occasionally, you would get waves of the stench of death. Once you have smelled that, it is hard to erase it from your memory.”
Atkinson and his family continue their efforts to provide medical, dental, educational and disaster relief to Haiti. In February he and his wife, Carol, organized a shipment of three 40-foot-high containers filled with a half-million servings of rice, 10,000 meals ready-to-eat, 70,000 bottles of water, and medical and building supplies they collected for construction of a new clinic, with more shipments to follow.
“The people of Haiti have always been a strong, amazing people, and my greatest fear in this crisis is that soon they will be forgotten,” Atkinson said. “The reality is the damage that has been inflicted in Haiti will affect these people for many years. My hope is the story will stay on our minds and our response to their needs will be resilient.”
Gainesville alumni answer Haiti’s call for help
Unlike Atkinson, Jason Rosenberg, MD ’95, had never been to Haiti before leading a team of Gainesville surgeons — all UF COM graduates — to the devastated area one week after the earthquake. He wasn’t familiar with the surprising strength of its people and certainly wasn’t prepared for the captivating spirit of their children.
“I was changed forever,” said Rosenberg, president of UF’s medical alumni board of directors. “No one who made the trip will forget the people of Haiti.”
The team included orthopaedic surgeons Amanda Maxey, MD ’93, and Steve Waters, MD ’75; surgical technician Dale McDilda, and plastic surgeons Rosenberg and Gregory Gaines, MD, HS ’01.
The group saw 15 to 20 surgical cases a day while on the ground at a small hospital in Jimani, just across the border from Haiti in the Dominican Republic.
When the team returned to Gainesville, they were treated to a red-carpet homecoming at the airport by their families and friends. As Rosenberg’s four young children clung to him, he was asked by a reporter from The Gainesville Sun what it was like to care for the children in Haiti, having small children himself.
“I told her ‘the only difference between my kids and those I was helping over the past week is where God decided to put them,’” he answered.
Serge Geffrard, MD ’98, who helped organize the first UF medical international trip to Haiti in 1996, and Eloise Harman, MD, a professor of medicine at UF, also traveled to Haiti after the earthquake to not only provide medical assistance but also to assess the most critical needs of the people.
“Serge knows how to get things done down there,” said Harman, who has accompanied students almost every year on the Project Haiti trips.
Geffrard, who was born in Haiti, is a Georgia pediatric cardiologist. Whether he is traveling to his home country or orchestrating relief efforts from his office in Stockbridge, Ga., Geffrard remains committed to helping the people of Haiti.
To read Atkinson’s firsthand account of his experience, click here.