Pfizer Colleagues Volunteer in Haiti after Earthquake
Individuals, families and companies throughout the nation have all taken action in response to the devastating earthquake that disrupted the Haitian population on January 12. Some have responded to this call to action by donating food and supplies, others arranged fundraisers and clothing drives, and some even traveled to the uprooted country itself.
Jim Cwengros, RMRS, Pulmonary Vascular Disease Team and Bob Mendes, Team Leader, Cardiovascular Regional Medical and Research Specialists Team, decided to take action by volunteering their medical and professional services to help those still recovering from the destructive earthquake. While Mendes and Cwengros come from different backgrounds, and live and work in separate parts of the United States, they both felt compelled to volunteer their services to those affected by the disaster.. Responding to emergencies was something they discussed when they were colleagues on Pfizer’s Cardiovascular RMRS Team. For Mendes, volunteering in Haiti was a reflection of the call to duty that many U.S. citizens experience during a time of crisis.
“I was working at Pfizer’s New York headquarters on September 11, 2001, and made my way down to ‘ground zero’ that day to volunteer my medical services and donate blood. However, due to the overwhelming response, I was turned away” said Mendes. “The devastation in Haiti was a stark reminder of my experience on 9/11, which compelled me to try to help the people of Haiti during their time of crisis, a country in desperate need of our support”.
The trip was organized by HaitiNeedsYou and supported by the Holy Spirit Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The church, where both Jim and his wife Rita are members, helps run a medical and dental clinic in the village of Seguin, and had originally scheduled a trip for January 21. Given the immediate need for assistance following the earthquake, the group altered their plans to change the makeup of the team to include more physicians and nurses trained in acute care.It was at this time that Mendes reached out to Cwengros and expressed his desire to volunteer in Haiti, and with Cwengros’ support Mendes was welcomed to join their team.
Getting to the epicenter of the disaster zone proved to be far more difficult than either could have imagined. The Port-au-Prince airport was closed to all commercial traffic, so the group was forced to explore alternative travel options, including chartering a private aircraft. The idea was quickly ruled out due to the lack of space the plane would provide in transferring supplies and as a large group traveling to Haiti, the team needed to be completely self-sufficient – bringing their own medications, medical supplies, food, water and housing.
After researching various methods of travel, a team member decided to contact the Amway Corporation, a Michigan-based organization that was currently flying to and from Haiti one to two times per week. The organization immediately offered its corporate jet to the group and coordinated with Haitian authorities to secure one of the few landing time slots available. An advance reconnaissance team of five volunteers finally arrived in Haiti on Saturday, January 23. The remainder of the group arrived between January 26 and January 28.
Once on the ground, Mendes, Cwengros and the rest of the team, which was comprised of 25 individuals, including an orthopedic surgeon, a maxilla-facial surgeon, several emergency room and family physicians, an emergency medical technician, a vascular surgery physician-assistant, several nurses, a pharmacist and three logistical support members began staffing four temporary medical facilities. This included working out of a number of tent cities, as well as a children’s hospital that was damaged in the quake.
Throughout the week, the team cared for patients with a variety of ailments ranging from broken bones and open wounds to skin and respiratory infections, hypertension and diabetes. Severely ill patients and/or those requiring x-rays were transported by pick-up truck to a hospital several miles away. Many of the clinics were basic, having no on-site x-ray or testing available. Medications were dispensed at each location from suitcases that were packed with donated and/or purchased supplies. At times, team members had to barter and trade with other medical teams to get what was needed. In total, the group treated between 5,000-7,000 patients during their week-long visit.
The accommodations for the team were not ideal, but many were pleasantly surprised given the state of the country.
“We anticipated sleeping in tents, but were very fortunate to stay at The Methodist House, a facility that typically provides shelter for missionaries. There were eight people to a room, all sleeping on bunk beds,” said Mendes. “There was intermittent electricity and enough running water to take a cold, 30-second shower every other day. We ate peanut butter and bread for breakfast, tuna and protein bars for lunch and pasta for dinner. Despite the circumstances, the group remained positive and enthusiastic about our mission and our camaraderie was exceptional,” he recalled.
For Mendes, the highlight of the trip was helping a 79 year-old woman suffering from a severely comminuted and angulated fracture of her thigh bone. Operating rooms weren’t functioning, so only a simple plaster splint, loosely held in place with ace bandages was previously applied. He found the woman confined to a cot, her lower leg abnormally rotated and suffering from bed sores. Mendes promised the woman’s daughter that her mother would be transferred to a hospital the next day.
Late that afternoon, several team members transferred the woman using a portable gurney and loaded both her and her daughter into the bed of a pickup truck, and transported them to a hospital equipped to handle the severe fracture. Upon arriving at the hospital her daughter was apprehensive as it was coincidentally the same hospital where her mother was initially treated. He went inside and briefed the nurse and doctor, who assured him they would operate on her the next morning. The woman was then taken to her room, which consisted of a mattress on the floor in the corner of the post-op ward.
“I don’t think I will ever forget the broad, appreciative smile her daughter thanked me with,” noted Mendes.
For Cwengros, the highlight was simply being among the legions of people who needed help so badly, especially the children. During the trip, he was able to visit the Mother Theresa orphanage, where he helped feed and play with the children.
Cwengros and Mendes were also grateful to work for an organization like Pfizer that recognized the critical need for specific medical skills during times of disaster and encouraged the pair to take leave from their daily responsibilities to volunteer in Haiti.
“It’s amazing to think that a distance of only 600 miles separates the wealthiest and poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. As a country, we have the responsibility of helping our neighbor,” added Cwengros.