Poverty, Profit and Disease
Haiti and Health Care


Genyen tout yon sosyete ki pou change.
(There is a whole society to be changed.)

— Haitian Proverb

It is no exaggeration to say the forty-five second, 7.0 earthquake
that rocked the capital of Haiti on January 12th and reduced hospitals
and clinics to rubble set the country on a trajectory back to a
medical stone age. Forty-five seconds.

The earthquake destroyed the health care infrastructure in Port-au-
Prince and shut down basic services critical for the delivery of
health care: the electrical grid, transport, water and sanitation
systems. The country didn’t have much of a health care system to
topple. Haiti lacks modern medical resources: state-of-the-art
hospitals and clinics; sufficient numbers of trained nurses, doctors
and other medical staff; medical devices, diagnostic technology and

Haiti is a medical backwater, an island trapped in a time capsule
where disease, disability and death stalk impoverished Haitians year
after year. About 80 percent of Haitians live in poverty (on less than
a $1 day) and 54 percent live in “abject poverty.” No one should die
of tuberculosis: medicines to cure the disease have existed for half a
century. Yet in Haiti, over 5000 a year die and rates of TB infection
are increasing. HIV/AIDS is considered a chronic disease treated by a
cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs. But not in Haiti – over 7000 die
every year. AIDS is the leading of cause of death for those between
the ages of 15 to 49. TB and AIDS are the infections of inequality and
unremitting poverty.

Dozens of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have provided
medical care to Haitians for decades. Haiti has become a “medical
missionary’s mission.” Thousands of committed and compassionate nurses
and doctors travel to the island to offer medical services and then
fly back to the developed world. Paul Farmer, a physician and
anthropologist at Harvard University, has brought attention to poor
Haitians dying from curable diseases. The organization he founded,
Partners in Health, has offered basic medical services to Haitians for
20 years. In his groundbreaking book, Infections and Inequalities, The
Modern Plagues, Farmer explains how the social determinants of health
collude at every turn to debilitate and kill.

Haiti needs a permanent, modern health care infrastructure that can
respond to the medical needs of all Haitians and is organized and
staffed by Haitians themselves. To be sure, medical charity for
Haitians is an important example of solidarity and support for the
sick and poor, but it’s no substitute for a free, national, indigenous
health care system.

Medical personnel the world over rushed to aid the victims of the
earthquake. First responders, typically a seasoned group of medical
providers, were astounded by the degree of devastation, the number of
deaths and the damage done to hospitals and community clinics. They
were confronted by a cacophony of screaming, crying and moaning from
Haitians crushed and trapped under piles of concrete and to the sight
of bleeding, dying and dead men, women and children lining the
streets. The word “traumatic” can’t begin to describe the sounds and
scenes of human suffering that went on for days and weeks. Tears are
supposed to be cathartic, but could anyone shed enough to wash away
the tragedy of 200,000 lives lost?

Haitian medical personnel were killed when workplaces crashed down on
them. Democracy Now reported from the General Hospital campus in Porto-
au-Prince the entire class of second-year nursing students was buried
inside their classrooms. Dr. Evan Lyon outlined the medical
catastrophe at the hospital: only four working operating rooms, no
anesthesia, no narcotics, running out of antibiotics, operating by
daylight and flashlight, using hacksaws to amputate limbs, thousands
of dead bodies stacked everywhere and no refrigeration in the morgue.

Two things could transform the horror into hope 3/4 freeing people from
the wreckage and providing medical care to survivors. Rescue and
medical teams were stymied in these two tasks at every turn. The press
reported daily on the “logistical nightmare” at the airport and on the
lack of coordination of relief efforts on the ground. Five flights
carrying inflatable hospitals and physicians from Doctors Without
Borders were rerouted to the Dominican Republic. In the United States,
the RN Response Network (RNRN) signed up 12,000 nurses within a week
of the quake, but the RNs weren’t able to get to Haiti until early
February. These delays in medical care were unconscionable and
resulted in more deaths.

Why, when natural disasters strike from Hurricane Katrina in New
Orleans to the earthquake in Porto-au-Prince, is the United States
incapable of planning and organizing a rapid, coherent and consistent
response? Why is there so much chaos, the logistics a “nightmare” and
medical resources and personnel to save lives delayed or denied
access? After all, the medical needs of survivors of trauma of every
type are well known. No organization understands psychological and
physical trauma — how to inflict and survive it — better than the
U.S. military.

In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Atul Gawande,
M.D., titled Casualties of War – Military Care for the Wounded in Iraq
and Afghanistan, explains how quick access to medical care “determines
whether or not someone dies.” The military learned how to decrease
soldier mortality; create Forward Surgical Teams (FSTs) positioned
directly behind troops instead of miles away. Think of them as modern,
mobile “M*A*S*H” units on meth minus Hawkeye and Houlihan. Gawande
describes them, “…small teams consisting of just 20 people: 3 general
surgeons, 1 orthopedic surgeon, 2 nurse anesthetists, 3 nurses, plus
medics and other support personnel.” The FST sets up a troika of tents
called Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelters that function as mini
hospitals. They are stocked with state-of-the-art medical technology
to resuscitate and operate on up to 30 patients at a time. Once
stabilized, soldiers are moved to the next level of care — combat
support hospitals. They are portable facilities too, and provide more
complex medical care within 24 to 48 hours of being assembled. The
next stop is a hospital in Kuwait, Spain or Germany and the end of the
line is transfer to a VA hospital in the United States. Gawande notes,
“The average time from battlefield to arrival in the United States is
now less than four days. In Vietnam it was 45 days.” This meticulous
level of coordination of care is a remarkable human achievement and
has resulted in a mind-blowing 90 percent survival rate! It is proof
positive effective and timely medical care can be delivered in the
most dangerous and difficult circumstances.

To be sure, a war is different than an earthquake, the number of
injured in Haiti is dramatically higher, but the acuity is not.
Instead of mobilizing and prioritizing the arrival of FSTs, medical
equipment, medicine and adapting the knowledge gleaned in war (as sick
as that is) to triage and treat the injured in a full-on attempt to
save Haitian lives, the U.S. military prioritized flights carrying
soldiers, high-ranking officials like Hillary Clinton (the airport was
shut down for 3 hours because of her arrival) and the media.
Currently, 20,000 US troops occupy the ports, Louverture International
Airport and Porto-au-Prince.

Just 600 hundred miles away — 1 hour and 22 minutes by commercial
flight — is the United States of America: The richest country on
earth with the largest, most technologically advanced health care
infrastructure staffed by millions of health care workers. Surgeons
operate with Da Vinci robots (surgery is a science and an Italian
art), dialysis machines cleanse blood, a new class of injectable drugs
called biologics have transformed the lives of millions with auto-
immune diseases, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS)
coordinates the harvesting and sharing of thousands of organs –
kidneys, livers, lungs, hearts – and delivers them to hospitals in all
fifty states by a fleet of helicopters.

Alongside this embarrassment of medical riches is an embarrassment of
medical poverty and medical apartheid: 50 million uninsured Americans,
45,000 die every year from lack of access to health care and a
disproportionate number that perish are African-American.

The state of Florida is in the midst of an unprecedented fiscal crisis
and a health care system meltdown: 4 million Floridians have no health
coverage. Families USA reports 797,000 of the uninsured are children.
The medical disaster in Haiti ran pell-mell into the health care
crisis in Florida. Hundreds of critically injured Haitians have been
evacuated by military C-130s to the state, but flights were suspended
for four days in January. In an article in the New York Times, Dr.
Barth A. Green, co-founder of Medishare for Haiti, warned the
suspension of flights could be catastrophic for patients and added,
“They need a degree of expertise and facilities not available anywhere
here [Haiti] or on the Naval hospital ship Comfort.” A surgeon
predicted 100 of his patients would die if military flights weren’t
restarted. The flights were halted after Republican Gov. Charlie Crist
sent a memorandum to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and
Human Services, warning the health care system was reaching a
“saturation point,” and asking the federal government to pick up the
bill (in the millions) for Haitian’s medical care. The governor said,
“We are trying to make sure we don’t over burden Florida and I think
that it’s important that we don’t.” An article in the South Florida
Sun-Sentinel reported, “The day Crist made his request, with 136
Haitian evacuees hospitalized in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade
counties, a state health task force member formally requested that
victims be sent north – in part to make sure Miami emergency rooms are
ready for the Super Bowl.”

Most Haitians flown to Florida for medical care aren’t legal
residents. They can apply for Medicaid but only if granted a temporary
status called “humanitarian parole.” To date, 34 patients have been
given “humanitarian parole” according to Matthew Chandler, a
spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security. Governor Crist
wants to bypass the parole process and force the federal government to
activate the National Disaster Medical System. Under that system, the
complete cost of providing care for patients regardless of legal
status is covered.

The federal government should activate the National Disaster Medical
System. Immediately – for the entire country.

The national medical disaster playing out in Haiti has its
doppelganger in the United States. Thousands of Haitians are standing
in line for medical care and so are Americans. Remote Area Medical
(RAM) is a charity organization committed to providing health care in
developing countries. But now over 60 percent of missions are based in
the poorest areas of the United States and wherever RAM goes thousands
of people line up for medical, dental and vision care. The tag-line on
their website reads: Pioneers of No-Cost Health Care.

In rural Virginia RAM set up on fairgrounds. Workers bleached the area
clean of horse manure, registered patients in a barn, then examined
and treated 2500 people over three days in animal stalls full of hay
and mud. In urban Los Angeles the digs were clean and modern – the
Forum concert arena – but the queues were longer. Dentists and
optometrists treated patients on the floor of the mega-stadium,
mammograms and gynecological exams were performed under the bleachers.
The all-volunteer medical staff treated up to 1,500 patients a day for
8 days.

Shards of concrete crushed thousands of Haitian limbs and created an
instant generation of amputees. The number of amputations performed
has reached 4000. Dr. Deane Marchbein, an anesthesiologist with
Doctors Without Borders, observed, “I imagine that not since the
Crimean war have surgeons seen and amputated so many limbs, perhaps
the Civil War in the United States…” The United States has generations
of amputees from the “Diabetes War” which we are losing. Diabetic foot
ulcers/infections are the number one cause of lower extremity
amputations. From 1980 to 1996, the number of diabetes-related lower
extremity amputations increased from 36,000 per year to 86,000. Almost
80 percent of amputations are preventable with tight control of blood
sugars, uninterrupted access to insulin and consistent medical follow
up. Diabetic amputations disproportionately afflict poor, uninsured
people of color who live in a high blood sugar hell.

All over the globe poverty and the pursuit of profit join together to
produce millions of preventable deaths and disability. An ocean may
separate Haiti from the United States but the struggle to make health
care a human right in both countries — one poor, the other rich —
unites us.

*I wrote this article in loving memory of Howard Zinn and in
solidarity with the people of Haiti.

Helen Redmond is a medical social worker in Chicago. She can be
reached at: redmondmadrid@yahoo.com