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Doctors, nurses from Southern California head to Haiti

Dozens from the area are preparing to assist in relief efforts after the earthquake. Volunteers can expect grim conditions, such as sporadic electricity, contaminated water and outdated equipment.

January 17, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Cesar Rivas watches at USC as his grandfather, nurse Claudel Thamas, leaves with a medical team for Haiti.
Cesar Rivas watches at USC as his grandfather, nurse Claudel Thamas, leaves… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Saturday morning, nine doctors and nurses at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center packed gauze, rubber gloves and other medical supplies before catching an afternoon flight from LAX to Miami en route to the Port-au-Prince, Haiti, airport today. They plan to assist doctors from the University of Miami, first at a field clinic at the airport and later, perhaps, in neighborhoods.

This will be the first trip to Haiti in 25 years for Claudel Thamas, 53, a critical care nurse. Several of his cousins in Port-au-Prince are still missing after the quake.

"I want to seize this opportunity to help save my own people," Thamas said.

Dozens of medical personnel from Southern California were preparing to travel to Haiti this weekend to assist in relief efforts.

Nationally, more than 9,200 registered nurses had volunteered as of Saturday to travel to Haiti, 2,884 from California, the biggest state contingent, according to National Nurses United, the country's largest nurses union.

Nurse Lunie Dorcin, 33, a Haitian immigrant working at Antelope Valley Hospital, plans to fly into Port-au-Prince today. Dorcin warned fellow volunteers that conditions in Haiti's hospitals were spartan even before the earthquake: sporadic electricity, contaminated water, outdated medical equipment, or no equipment at all. Dorcin said she and patients' relatives often had to buy their own rubber gloves, catheters and other medical supplies.

"They might not expect what they're going to see when they get to Haiti," Dorcin said of fellow volunteers. "It's always hard to change a dressing, hard to change an IV, because there's no supply."

Ramon Cestero, a trauma and critical care surgeon at County-USC, said he expects greater challenges in Haiti compared with his last volunteer assignment, staffing a field hospital at a Sumatra airport in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami.

"It's a poorer country," he said of Haiti, adding that security hadn't been as great an issue in Indonesia. "We're hoping we can get to the areas where we're needed most."

Kimberly Adams, a registered nurse at , said she plans to return to Haiti soon to help at a makeshift hospital set up in a Port-au-Prince orphanage, Maison de Lumiere, where she has previously volunteered.

Adams, 26, said she spoke with a fellow UCLA nursing student at the orphanage who told her that they are overwhelmed.

"They were taking bedsheets and turning them into slings and tourniquets. . . . A lot of amputations are taking place without pain medication, and they're already rationing water."

Conditions are likely to worsen for medical volunteers in the coming week as water supplies dwindle, said Farshad Rastegar, CEO of Los Angeles-based Relief International, which is sending teams of doctors from Kaiser and other California hospitals to Haiti.

Rastegar said the medical teams, some of which arrived this weekend, will be going into neighborhoods with backpacks full of supplies, including water purification tablets.

"More people die in the aftermath of a disaster from dirty or bad water than anything else," Rastegar said.

"Within a week of the disaster, the priority changes to public health because that's when the diseases -- cholera and measles -- start to show their face."

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