Miami’s front line in Haiti
Local responders treated hundreds
Nate Lasseur, a firefighter, was one of the first people to show up in Port-au-Prince after the Jan. 12 earthquake.
As a Haitian American, that experience left him wanting to do more.
Lasseur is like many of the people who responded to Haiti’s crisis, traveling back and forth between South Florida and Haiti, bringing with them tools, skills and hope.
The responders include doctors from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who set up the largest rescue hospital in Haiti hours after the earthquake left nearly 300,000 people dead and many more thousands injured.
Since coming back home to West Palm Beach, Lasseur has been raising money and collecting used firefighting equipment from other stations around South Florida. He then travels to Haiti, where he works with young men and women who belong to a scouting organization, teaching them about escape routes and how to use a fire extinguisher or recognize safety issues. He also donates the equipment he collects to firefighters working at Haiti’s two stations.
“Basically, it’s a calling for me,’’ said Lasseur, 40, who was born in Haiti and serves as a lieutenant on the West Palm Beach Fire Rescue Department. “I could think of a lot of things to do but the biggest gift my parents gave me is a love for God and a love for Haiti. I have a love for Haiti and I have a passion to help Haiti.”
Lasseur has been traveling back to Haiti every month since the earthquake. He was there as recently as a few weeks ago. He said six months is a short time, but he is beginning to see some positive changes, such as people starting to manage their own lives.
“Obviously this is something that just happened,’’ said Lasseur, who describes his parents as missionaries. “ There is still a lot to be done, but we can’t expect too much. It’s going to take a long time for Haiti to get back on its knees.’’
He said the capital city of more than three million people needs more fire departments than just the two now in existence.
“I’m optimistic,’’ Lasseur said. “That’s what keeps me motivated. That’s what drives me. It’s popular to be negative about Haiti.’’
Along with firefighters, doctors and nurses from South Florida were also the first to get on the scene. Many of them work for Medishare, a non profit organization at the UM Miller School of Medicine that helps improve Haiti’s health care system. They have clinics throughout Haiti, and they bring doctors from South Florida, and elsewhere, to work with Haitian patients.
Dr. Arthur Fournier, the co-founder of Medishare, was one of the first medical responders to show up in Port-au-Prince, hours after the earthquake shook the city.
“It was chaotic, but controlled,” Fournier recalled.
Project Medishare set up a hospital under a large tent, where thousands of patients were treated for all kinds of wounds.
This hospital was set up close to the airport so medical supplies and patients can be easily transported, said Dr. Daniel Pust.
Pust is one of the original surgeons from Jackson Memorial Hospital to arrive with Project Medishare and even help set up the hospital tent.
“Many doctors were not paid to do this; we just knew it was the right thing to do,” recalled Pust.
“There were more amputations than in Vietnam,” Fournier said.
Dr. Elizabeth Grieg arrived in Haiti five days later.
“You were constantly seeing one crazy thing after another,” she said. “The environment made it hard to stop working.”
Project Medishare is still in Haiti, though its doctors no longer operate out of the tent hospital. They now work out of a community hospital. There, they are helping amputees relearn how to walk on prosthetic legs. They’ve hired nearly 100 Haitian medical staff, making their staff predominantly Haitian.
Before the earthquake, Grieg was working on a survey of emergency medical services in Haiti, looking at critical and surgical care, among other services. The hardest part was getting hospitals to communicate, she said. Her goal was to develop a network of hospitals that could respond to emergency situations.
Though the healthcare landscape has changed six months later, the project is moving along, she said. The hope is to integrate Medishare’s plan into Haiti’s Ministry of Health.
“I hope that there’s a silver lining to all this,’’ Grieg said. “When I first started on this project, it was a pipe dream. It seemed so unrealistic.
“One can only hope that something amazing will come of this, some sustainable infrastructure can come out of it. I hope so. It would be the ultimate. If nothing comes out of it, it would be the biggest tragedy.”