In January 2010, immediately after the earthquake hit Haiti, Uchenna Aningo MD, a practicing physician assistant in Florida, united a team of healthcare providers from around the United States who were ready and willing to go to Port-au-Prince. In a few days, Uchenna and Alex coordinated a team of surgeons, physicians from many specialties, pharmacists, physician assistants, nurses, and other medical personnel to head to Haiti. Fortunately, many of them were multilingual and spoke French and Creole, the languages spoken in Haiti. With generous support from the medical team, the group was also able to transport medical and surgical supplies into Port-au-Prince.
During the weeks following the earthquake, the airport was closed to commercial aviation. Alex Lizzappi, our founder and CEO, was able to reach an agreement with Insel Air to charter a plane for humanitarian relief purposes. They landed in Port-au-Prince on January 19, 2010, and due to security concerns, the group was stationed outside of the city.
The next day, the group of 50+ medical personnel traveled to the orphanage “Ecole Mixte Bon Samaritain” located in the rural village of Trou-Baguette to evaluate their needs before moving on to Carrefour.
Then, the medical team made the two-hour journey from Trou-Baguette to Carrefour, a community within Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of the earthquake. Prior to arrival in Haiti, contact had been made with Graceway International, a local Haitian Christian organization, to use their facilities, which consisted of a church, boys’ and girls’ dormitories, and a primary care clinic. Unfortunately, it had been severely affected by the earthquake.
Thousands of injured and displaced people had gathered on the grounds under makeshift shelters of cloth and sticks. The group of volunteers established a makeshift triage and urgent care center within the remains of the church building, using church benches to separate the different medical areas, such as triage, pediatrics, trauma, gynecology, etc. During the first day onsite in Carrefour, the team rushed to diagnose and treat patients as well as perform emergency surgery.
On the second day, the group was divided into two teams. The first was a surgical team that responded to the general hospital’s need for more surgeons due to the overwhelming cases of trauma. The surgical team took shifts to help the hospital ensure 24-hour coverage of the operating room. The other team remained at the Grace International compound diagnosing and treating patients until its departure. Due to the overwhelming need for medical practitioners, 2 members of the group extended their stay in Carrefour to provide additional medical assistance. All of the medical supplies used to treat patients were provided by members of the group who were able to purchase them at wholesale prices, donations from various hospitals in Illinois, and donations from private physicians’ offices. Most of the medical personnel brought their own equipment used in their specialty.
As the medical team focused their efforts on the Port-au-Prince area emergencies, Alex returned to the orphanage in Trou-Baguette. The lightly damaged building without electricity and running water housed 18 children from the ages of 2 to 14. Located outside the area of relief efforts, yet directly suffering from national paralysis, the orphanage was in a state of financial depression. The ownership of the orphanage complained of a scarcity of food, utilities, healthcare, and education. Most of the children appeared malnourished and many were coughing heavily. Without access to public or private schools, most children had sporadic education mainly provided by private teachers paid by donors. This reality became the final propulsive motivation to contribute on a long-term basis towards the future of displaced, abandoned, orphaned, and Restavek children in distressed rural orphanages.
While in Trou-Baguette, Alex resided at the orphanage, experiencing first-hand the reality of life as a displaced, abandoned, and orphaned child in a typical Haitian orphanage. With sunlight as the only source of light, the daily grind at the orphanage begins each day with the sunrise and ends with the sunset. Each child receives one meal a day, consisting of substandard rice with beans or peas. Without a school, teachers, or books, the children spend most of the day doing house chores or playing soccer barefoot in an empty field of rocks and debris. When Alex talked with the children to get an understanding of their level of education, he found that while they had little access, they were all very eager to read and learn and had a supportive, collaborative spirit toward one another.
After discussing the needs and difficulties of the orphanage with its owners, and evaluating a long-term plan covering education, nutrition, healthcare, and building improvements, Alex returned to Florida with the desire to organize an ongoing effort targeting distressed orphanages.