Thursday, October 27, 2011

Food for Thought - Comments on a Pediatrician's Reaction to the Haitian Earthquake

Last week, I had a chance to hear a pediatrician from Massachusetts (Dr. Dennis Rosen from Children's) talk about his experiences in Haiti in the months following the earthquake. Many of the experiences he described demonstrated the incredible ingenuity required to practice in such a resource poor and devastated setting. He told stories through pictures and the pictures spoke volumes about the condition health care in the country, both before and after the disaster.

When they could not find an incubator for preterm baby, one was fashioned from a cardboard box and a desk lamp. The baby in a box lived in soon they did this for many more. They saw many children who were malnourished and didn't quite know what to do. This was a condition the Haitian doctors and residents took great pride in knowing how to treat: " This we do very well."

Taking a photographic tour through the pediatric wards in Haiti - the small tents crammed with patients, parents sleeping underneath their children's cribs in streams of water flowing through the tents, parents taking children home with defects like omphaloceles - one found it difficult to not what to render assistance.  Stepping past the urges to offer assistance perhaps the most important lessons of the night were lessons of perspective.  There were numerous doctors in the audience who commented on a Haitian health care system that was largely in a similar condition when they visited 30 or 40 years ago.  Certainly the economy was no better at that time.  We discussed some of the disorganization that ensues when aid pours in from many sources.  When aid is given without regard to the specific needs on the ground, there tends to be a mismatch between what supplies are given and what is actually required. 

The take home? ... Perhaps aid is best rendered through established and organized groups instead of individual donations or traveling as part of a small contingent.

He reminded us of the Chinese proverb:

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
In some ways, rendering aid after the disaster works a bit like this.  There's an immediate need we need to help out with, but for a lasting change, aid needs to be delivered in a sustainable way that seeks to build up the infrastructure and the economy of the country in need.

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