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St. Louis-supported health organizations still running in Haiti after devastating earthquake

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2010 - Just before 5 p.m. Tuesday evening, Thomas Stehl sat in St. Louis, talking on Skype with Steve Taviner in Haiti. "And he said, 'I think that there was just an earthquake,'" Stehl says.

He was right.

At 4:53 p.m., a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck 10 miles southwestof Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. From Cap Haitien on the north coast of Haiti, Taviner felt the earthquake that left thousands dead and missing.

"How many more things can happen?" asks St. Louis pediatrician Dr. Patricia Wolff, executive director of Meds & Food for Kids, which produces RUTF (Ready to Use Therapeutic Food) in Haiti to treat malnourished children. "It just seems like the trials of Job."

MFK is a St. Louis-based nonprofit that has treated 2,400 children during the past two years, estimating that 75 percent of the children have recovered. Taviner works as the groups operations officer, and Stehl as the coordinator of operations.

While Haiti's Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, told CNN that hundreds of thousands of people may have died in the earthquake, MKF's production facility in Cap Haitien was unharmed.

According to Stehl, the staff is all accounted for, save one, Port-au-Prince depot manager Papillon Gerard. "We have not had any word from him," Stehl says.

He anticipates the crisis, considered the region's worst earthquake in 200 years, will only increase the need for MFK's product, Medika Mamba, the peanut-based RUTF. "There will be more malnourished children who need this," Stehl says.

What's unsure, at this point, is the infrastructure of MFK's partners, which distribute the RUTF, and the ability to get through Port-Au-Prince.

"We don't know how they're coping with this because the communications are just nonexistent right now," Stehl says.

Wolff leaves today for Washington, D.C., where tomorrow and Friday she'll meet with the staffs of several representatives, including Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Wolff plans on continuing the previously planned meeting, asking for support in getting USAID to purchase Haitian-made RUTF, and she thinks the crisis only makes the situation in Haiti more important.

Then, on Sunday, Wolff leaves for Haiti.

While the event is devastating and shocking, she says, the focus has to be not just on rescue but on developing the economy and agriculture of Haiti so that the country's not always a step from crisis.

Also, Wolff expects, the response to the earthquake will be strong because it wasn't just Haitians impacted by the earthquake, but also aid workers and people from foreign governments.

"It actually affects them," she says. "They're rescuing themselves, their families, their friends, their organizations and Haitians."

Like Stehl, Wolff expects a spike in demand, which MFK also saw in 2008 after four hurricanes hit the country.

"I thought that was the worst that could happen," Wolff says. "But I guess not."

Sacred Heart Hospital in Milot

The 7.0 earthquake is also of heartfelt concern to hundreds of St. Louisans with close ties to the largest private hospital in northern Haiti -- the 73-bed Hopital Sacre Coeur, in Milot, a six-hour drive on poor roads from the earthquake's center. St. Louisans, who greatly expanded the hospital, continue to volunteer and provide financial support.

In an email, Raymond Delnatus, the hospital finance director, confirmed that no one was hurt at the facility; the hospital, the largest employer in the town, is standing and fully operational. Tremors were felt in the area, about 10 miles from the nearby northern city of Cap-Haitian. That city's airport remains open. Hospital board members in St. Louis got the email.

Late Wednesday Sacre Coeur hospital's foundation board member Charles Dubuque of Warson Woods got word that cracks had developed in some of the hospital buildings due to the tremors. Dubuque, a St. Louis coffee company executive and son of the hospital's foundation founder, considers it fortunate that a construction expert happened to be at the hospital. Retired general contractor Tim Traynor of Springfield, Mass., was volunteering for a several weeks. Traynor has helped with non-medical operations at the hospital over the years, knows its buildings and has overseen periodic updates. Repairs can be made, he told Dubuque.

Because the hospital is far beyond the teeming chaos of Port au Prince, Dubuque said some injured might be airlifted to the airport near the hospital. He and another board member Thomas Schlafly, of St. Louis, are both concerned about the many dedicated hospital staff members who have family in Port-au-Prince that they have not yet heard from.  

For years people from the now devastated capital city of Port-au-Prince have traveled to the hospital for care when St. Louis medical specialists have been in residence. Today, the hospital's regular full-time doctors include 15 Haitians backed by a staff of 160.

"I certainly foresee that they may bring patients to Milot since already in ordinary circumstances, we see them," said Dr. Timothy O'Connell, a St. Louis plastic surgeon who has operated at Sacre Coeur hospital at least once, sometimes twice a year, since 1992. Last year, he operated on a 3-year-old girl who was brought on bad roads from Port au Prince. She had had open facial wounds from a burn injury from two and a half years before. Care had been unavailable near her home.

"Daily her dressings had to be changed, since she was six months old," O'Connell said. "There is nothing more painful that a burn wound, and this child had had one for two and half years." The doctor was able to close her wounds with grafts of her own skin. After he left, the Haitian doctors were able to give her post-operative care.

Last year, O'Connell and internist Dr. Bill Guyol, Jr. of St. Louis operated on a 50-year-old woman who had a cleft palate, a condition easily repaired in developed country in childhood.

"It shows you how difficult it is to get medical care there," he said. In an interview mid-day Wednesday, he expressed concerns about the conditions of the hospitals in the capital city. Cell phones have been the main form of communications for years, but now the cell phone towers are down.

O'Connell has operated on Haitians who struggle to keep wounds clean while living in places without running water. Those injured in the earthquake, which destroyed much of the capital city's infrastructure, will face even more basic challenges.

Before the earthquake, O'Connell had already planned to spend a week in March doing surgery at the hospital, accompanied, a surgurical nurse and an anesthesiologist. His St. Louis U. High school schoolmate classmate neurosurgeon Dr. Mike Fleming, now of Atlanta, will also volunteer there that week.

O'Connell is just one of the hospital's long-time supporters trying to figure out what supplies the hospital needs and how to get them there.

"We will see what can be done. The roads are so bad, and Milot is in a mountainous area. Getting supplies there is mostly by boat, not planes," said Susan Reese, one of six St. Louis board members on the non-profit foundation that supports the hospital.

Despite hurricanes and political chaos, the hospital has provided service for 23 years without interruptions. Founded in 1986 by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart of the Montreal Province, it was first a small clinic with eight beds. The St. Louis connection began when Dr. Ted Dubuque, a St. Louis surgeon, visited the tiny new hospital that year and spent six months working there. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer in St. Louis who has long covered religion. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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