Ophelia Dahl from Partners in Health at Wellesley College — Haiti, Three Days In

Wellesley, Ma January 15. 11:00 AM

By Louisa Kasdon

Ophelia Dahl, Executive Director of Boston-based Partners in Health (www.pih.org) spoke to a capacity crowd of students, and other members of the Wellesley College community this morning about the current situation in Haiti. Dahl is a Wellesley College alumna, class of ’94, and was scheduled to be on campus this morning as a visiting faculty member this morning as part of the three-week inaugural program of the Madeleine K. Albright Institute for Global Affairs. The new institute selects 40 students every year for training as future leaders in global affairs. Dahl’s talk, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, veered quickly from a planned presentation focused on an over view of community based health programs to a hard hitting update on the situation in Haiti. Students were riveted. Her arrival, even before the earthquake, was anticipated much as an icon coming to campus. She came, stuffed the mike into her waistband, and smiled. “As an alum, every time I drive through the gates of the campus I believe that things are going to be all right.”

But today is not an all right day for Dahl or anyone else concerned about international issues. Her arrival was late, delayed by a conference call––much of it by satellite telephone––with her colleagues and friends now on the ground in Haiti. “My head is spinning a bit, “in understatement, as she catalogued all the complexities of getting emergency aid to Haiti in the aftermath of Wednesday’s 7.0 earthquake. “ We are hearing from our colleagues on the ground that the casualties may be far higher than initial reports, possibly as high as 250,000 lives lost. And it is still very hard to get information. Even though our staff work for us in the Central Plateau and other regions, they have family who live in Port Au Prince and we have not heard from many of them since the earthquake struck,” she said, addressing the students and others, her manner fatigued yet calm. “There are still severe aftershocks, and they are hampering the ability to mobilize. The quake struck the government, the UN, the ports the airports, the Red Cross and the communications system, and each loss compounds a terrible problem. All major aid organizations are damaged or destroyed.” Dahl said that one of her colleagues, a physician from Brigham and Women’s Hospital landed in Port Au Prince just as the earthquake was occurring. “We were in a budget meeting and she sent us a message–‘SOS…SOS…We need supplies. Everything is crushed.”

Because of PIH deep roots in the country, the organization was able to start moving expertise and supplies to the capital city quickly. “Our staff is trained and local and didn’t need to wait for instructions from Boston,” she explains. “They knew which medical supplies were needed instantly. What can a doctor do if he doesn’t have bandages and morphine in a situation like this? With supplies that we could bring in from our hospitals and from a supply chain in the Dominican Republic, they were able to get to work.” As the 600 members of the PIH staff moved in from their bases, they “encountered boulders on the roads, roads that were hard to define as roads, and a wave of quake victims already moving out of the capital to the still staffed and equipped PIH operated hospitals in the Central Plateau, three hours from the capital area devastated by the quake”. Dahl reports that in addition to the need for dollars, medical supplies, orthopedic and surgical equipment, there is also a need for everything blankets and sleeping bags, to flashlights and tents. “It is winter in Haiti and people are getting cold. Right now, there is no way in or out. It’s not clear who is coordinating in the country, or who is manning the control tower at the airport. The government is knocked out.”

The crisis is intense, but the process of rebuilding Haiti is long one, and Dahl hopes that “international imagination and attention” can stay focused on Haiti’s needs beyond the immediate. She says that PIH has received “generous outpouring of funds” through its website in the past few days, but more will be needed for sustainable recovery. We have to clear the debris from roads, get the airports open, and get aid supplies delivered and get the bodies removed before the inevitable next wave of disease. Then we have to focus on the re-building process.”  Partners in Health has a long-term commitment to the area and is already thinking about long-term needs. “ We have to think about the lasting echoes of this disaster, beyond the immediate trauma. Will we need to build bridges? Roads? We have to keep from mission creep, but we also have to be nimble and do whatever it takes to help the country recover.”  Partners in Health has begun to receive donations from corporations in the medical industry for everything from crutches to operating equipment. “It means so much to be able to say to a friend or colleague from Haiti, ‘Yes, we can send that.” To find out more about the current situation in Haiti and about PIH’s efforts on the ground, visit the website www.standwithhaiti.org

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