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Gearing Up

Penn Haiti Team prepares for departure

Samir Mehta (left) and other members of Penn Medicine Haiti Team One prepare for departure.

The morning was a bit hectic. Having gotten word the night before that external fixators and orthopaedic equipment were necessary, we began the process of frantically adding nearly 150 lbs of external fixators to our already overloaded payload for the plane.  I also made the mistake of adding cases to the morning schedule simply to have something to do until our 1200 departure.

At 1130 (after running around a bit), PHT1 [Penn Haiti Team 1] met in the Flyers/Sixers auditorium for a farewell gathering from the HUP / UPHS leadership. After some pictures, we were led to the loading dock and a police escort took us to the private terminal at Philadelphia International Airport.

Taking Flight for Haiti

Penn Haiti Team at the airport

Photo: Daniel Burke Photography

Having never been to the private terminal, I was surprised to see our plane and the freedom with which we were able to move to and fro.  Our bags were loaded on the plane and then we waited as wheels up was based on our wheels down time in PoP. Since our window to land in PoP [Port-au-Prince] was very defined, it was important for us to leave on time.  

We were a bit early and so we waited in the lounge and ate our boxed lunches.  Unsure of what we were embarking on or what we would see (and how we would get there), we waited for Frank, our pilot, to give us the green light to board the plane.

That came at 1405.  We were greeted on the 14-seater Gulfstream by Linda, our flight attendant, along with two bowls of candy, water, and food.  Take off was nothing like commercial flying in that I was texting and calling my loved ones the entire time.  Babak was able to sit near the cockpit and watch take off.

As the flight started, we realized that this was truly unreal.  “The Blind Side” was playing.  There was food from Tony Luke’s and cheesecake from Wegman’s.  The team napped, ate, and drank – water mostly, with the addition of Yuengling, Heinken, and Corona Lite.

Then, all of sudden, we saw land out of the window and we realized that it was upon us.  The cabin was quiet as we each looked out the windows anticipating, or at least trying to anticipate, what we would see.

Arrival in Port-au-Prince

We landed and everyone checked their phones for service.  Texting capabilities were “alive” and immediate “Pings”, “Tweets”, and “IM’s” were about.  Frank, our pilot, deplaned to find our Partners-in-Health leadership.  We were fully expecting to wait three hours.  We deplaned to find two SUVs.  Unfortunately, two SUVs are not capable of holding nine HUP volunteers, four PIH [Partners in Health] representatives and almost 1200 lbs worth of supplies. 

The mugginess was upon us and the noise. I quickly realized there were a lot of people walking around in fatigues with M16s.  In addition, there was a lot of traffic back and forth, but the airport itself was eerily quiet. The inside dark, windows broken, doors off hinges … representative of what we were to find. 

We waited for a third SUV.  We were to go to secure “tent camp” – what that meant was unclear.  Lots of soldiers walking around – French flags, American stars, Doctors without Borders, Civil military.  Finally, the SUV arrived and we loaded up and started to make our way out of the airport – rather slowly.  There were no obvious roads.  We finally left the airport which was guarded at its gates by the UN.  Once outside the “protected gates”, it was clear the devastation … walls crumbled, gates broken, UN security forces clearly outnumbered by the masses.

As we drove through, stares of the people on the street, from the oncoming traffic. In a country devastated, I can only imagine what these people were thinking as we made our way through their streets with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of supplies and food and potential life saving equipment for their loved ones.  The stares were daunting and I was embarrassed because of what we take for granted on a daily basis – food, water, sterility, air conditioning, safety.

Tent City

Two honks later, the lead car of three was standing in front of a gate which slowly opened.  We cornered around some building and arrived at our destination – “Tent City”.  Large flood lights allowed for a shadow cast by tents strewn in various orientations about a cement parking lot.  Home for the night.

We unloaded the SUV’s and realized that our surroundings were “safe”.  We met with a PIH coordinator who suggested we try and get some sleep which would be hard since we weren’t exhausted and the C130’s flying overhead were quite loud.

We were met by staff and physicians from Boston and New York who shared with us their experiences at the University Hospital.  They were seeking colleagues – people who could relate to what they were seeing and doing (or not doing).  Open injuries going days or weeks without care, patients in renal failure, the stigma associated with amputation despite the need to do this, the lack of infrastructure, the minimal equipment, no autoclave, no radiography, and no, or rather limited, cooperation between medical teams.  They offered advice of patience, understanding of the people’s needs, and the importance of being inclusive.

We were introduced to our tents, set-up shop (particularly with the equipment that we did not want leaving our sites) and then just sat and took in the trade wind breezes.  The tents were hot and at 9 PM the outdoor breeze was what we all needed. Conversation all about was barely intelligible over the generator providing running water to the facility.

We are unsure of what our next day holds – we might be traveling anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to our hospital – far from the lights and cameras – where we can roll up our sleeves and hopefully make a difference.


This report was written by Samir Mehta, MD, during his participation in Haitian relief efforts through Penn Medicine in coordination with Partners in Health.



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