By Dilshad Ali
After scrambling to find a way to help in Haiti, IMANA forged a partnership with the Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS).
When he entered Haiti from neighboring Santo Domingo and made his way into Port au Prince, Dr. Nabile Safdar knew that nothing he had been told or seen in television footage prepared him for the scene on the ground.
The numbed attitude of the Haitians whom Safdar encountered reflected the level of destruction of Haiti’s capital city by the devastating earthquake in late January. “Most had lost their homes, and everyone had lost a family member,” Safdar said. “The people we were seeing were in a state of shock and disbelief. They were very stoic and not sure what was going on. We knew we had to help right away.”
Safdar was on the first team of Muslim doctors dispatched by the Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA) to Haiti a mere five days after a severe earthquake struck the nation. After scrambling to find a way to help, IMANA forged a partnership with the Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS), which was already on the ground in Haiti doing the logistical work needed to set up a medical clinic, and AIMER Haiti — a Haitian group, which scouted out a location.
IMANA, an association of doctors of the Islamic faith established nearly 40 years ago, does not have relief work as its primary focus, said Dr. Ismail Mehr, a four-year-member of IMANA and head of its relief committee. The mission of the group is to provide a forum and resource for Muslim physicians and other healthcare professionals, promote a greater awareness of Islamic medical ethics and values, advocate in health care policy, and provide relief.
“Because of our deen (Islamic Religion), the relief part becomes inevitable,” Mehr said. “So when this whole disaster occurred, the first thing the president of IMANA and me said to each other was, ‘How can we help in Haiti?'”
|“Our faith teaches us to help anyone who is suffering, be he Muslim or not. And from the perspective of being Muslim, our charity is not just for them. It also benefits our own souls.”|
IMANA had worked with CDRS (formerly known as Operation Heartbeat during the course of their relief work in the 2005 Pakistan earthquake) before. But when the earthquake struck Haiti, Mehr was faced with a dilemma. During their past three relief efforts (in Pakistan, in Indonesia after the Tsunami, and last year in Gaza), the group simply contacted the Federation of Islamic Medical Association (FIMA) — a worldwide Islamic medical organization with local offices in nearly every Muslim country, and asked the group for local contacts to work with.
Haiti had no branch of FIMA to provide that local contact. Mehr then spent the first frantic few days after the earthquake contacting groups like Doctors Without Borders to see if they could partner up. “Everyone was nice, but they had their own protocol and didn’t have time to get us involved,” Mehr said. “Then one of our members reminded me that we had worked with CDRS before, and they were already in Haiti.”
Mehr contacted CDRS and learned that the group had been working with AIMER Haiti and were in the process of turning an amusement park into a medical facility. “They had the logistics underway, and they needed doctors. That’s where we came in,” Mehr said.
Safdar, a radiologist, was among the first group of physicians dispatched to Haiti along with four other doctors to assess the needs of the makeshift medical center and get it operational. For Safdar, though it was his first relief mission, the chance to be on the first team was the one he wanted.
“For the first team there was a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Where would we be sleeping? Where would we get our supplies? What would security be like? I wanted to be part of that.”
Within a day of arrival, Safdar and his fellow doctors, who arrived with supplies and purchased additional ones in Santo Domingo, collaborated with CDSR to make the amusement park operational for seeing patients. “It was a kiddie park,” Safdar said. “There were several pavilions, with maybe two of them damaged. So, we set up a makeshift pharmacy and supply area, and we used air hockey tables as beds and folding tables as stretches. It was very improvised.”
They immediately began seeing patients though initial medical procedures were basic: dressing wounds, splinting basic fractures, giving IV fluids, and issuing antibiotics. Safdar said it was very busy from the get-go, with a few dozen patients coming the first day to more than 300 arriving daily for treatments by the following week when the second team from IMANA had taken over.
“It was easy to immerse yourself in the work,” Safdar said. “It’s kind of paradoxical, but the volunteers were taking their strength from Haitians. It was hard not to be emotional. They were very gracious hosts; they wanted to help us help them.”
IMANA organized its relief efforts in weeklong shifts. So, though the medical care was rudimentary the first week, by week two, a mobile OR was up and running. Safdar reported that amputations were performed; a baby was delivered, and there were more extensive treatments of wounds than just a simple dressing. “Still, there were limitations: We didn’t have an anesthesia machine. Our doctors could only do procedures under conscious sedation. There was no ventilator to breath for the patients.”
But by the second week, the IMANA doctors were able to shift critically ill patients to other working hospitals in Port au Prince as well as send out mobile teams to some of the tent cities to treat those who couldn’t come to the clinic. IMANA’s team two helped the clinic evolve more from a triage clinic to a working hospital, with an acute care clinic and tents for in-patients.
Mehr said the first team had the biggest task of all — setting up a clinic out of “suitcases and boxes,” and making a triage. “The biggest thing in relief work is to have doctors who can improvise and work outside of the box of their specialty,” he said.
The Long Run
|Dr. Nabile Safdar knew that nothing he had been told of or had seen in television footages prepared him for the scene on the ground.|
Now, nearly three weeks after the earthquake, IMANA continues to send teams to Haiti to conduct surgeries and treat earthquake victims. The nature of their work continues to evolve, and they are treating patients who had ailments prior to the earthquake.
Team three progressed further than team two. And team four is now seeing more than 400 people in the field hospital. “Now it’s a well-oiled machine,” Mehr said, “Built on the hard work that team one did that first week and the great logistical work by CDRS and AIMER Haiti, now we are able to help in more ways.
But, unfortunately, IMANA plans to wrap up its work in Haiti by the end of February because CDRS will be leaving around the same time, and “because of a lack of our part of having a full team who can be there for an indefinite period,” Mehr said. “And if we don’t have a point person on the ground to know when people are coming and going, then it’s very difficult to keep up the work.”
“It’s really hard without having a logistics team permanently based in Haiti. We’re leaving it up to CDRS to see what they can do to transition from acute to long-term facilities. Maybe we can transition the field hospital to AIMER Haiti or to another NGO,” Mehr said. “This field hospital is not built for long-term care. It’s an amusement park. There is no building structure. This facility can’t continue much longer.”
IMANA is considering ways it can continue to help in Haiti, either by soliciting donations or by forging other partnerships, perhaps with Islamic Relief, Helping Hands (Islamic Center of North America’s relief arm), or the Zakat Foundation.
It will be hard to pull out, Safdar said, but the group will continue to help in Haiti, even if they cannot continue to be there on the ground. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to keep this in the spotlight as much as we can in our communities, in our masjids, and in our spheres of influence. We need to prepare people to pace their response out. There’s such generosity in the days after the aftermath, but we must pace out our help and donations over time,” he said.
Safdar also emphasized the need for Muslims to help in Haiti though it isn’t a Muslim country. “Our faith teaches us to help anyone who is suffering, be he Muslim or not. And from the perspective of being Muslim, our charity is not just for them. It also benefits our own souls.”