On January 12, 2010, Dr. Andrew Furey was at home in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, NL, watching news reports of the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake that tore through the Caribbean nation of Haiti - a disaster that killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.
"Seeing the images live of the devastation from the earthquake, I think, really struck me," he recalls. Though he had no personal connection to Haiti, a country with a population of approximately 10.6 million, he says the sheer volume of the devastation was a call to action for him.
Dr. Furey; his wife, Dr. Allison Furey, a pediatric emergency room doctor; and Dr. Will Moores, an orthopedic surgeon, joined a group from Johns Hopkins University and headed to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, to provide emergency medical care five months after the earthquake. When Dr. Furey first arrived in Port-au-Prince, “The situation…was quite devastating. The sheer amount of destruction, the volume of downed buildings and piles of cement and downed power lines was overwhelming, really.” He can remember driving down the capital’s main street and not being able to see anything beyond the debris. “All you could see on either side of the vehicle was mounds and mounds and mounds of rubble. We had no idea what was on the other side of it.”
The challenges of offering medical care in such a chaotic, tragic environment were - and still are - immense. “Everything, every basic thing we would take for granted here, is a hurdle in Haiti. Simple things, like the logistics of a clinic in Haiti, can become complicated because of the things beyond your control, like…transporting people to and from the clinic to more complex things like access to blood and blood products. We’ve seen, unfortunately, patients die who would, definitely, no question, not have died in Canada,” says Dr. Furey.
During that initial trip, there was one more hurdle to overcome: the medical team didn’t know each other.
“You’re burning time that would otherwise be spent valuably operating and caring for patients, just trying to figure out what people can do and who they are. So, it felt like there could be a better model.” He knew if he’d brought his own medical team with him, it would have been easier to treat as many patients as possible.
Dr. Furey and his group returned home, but the idea for another trip began to grow. Other healthcare professionals in the province expressed a willingness to donate their skills to helping Haiti. This interest eventually became Team Broken Earth (TBE), a grassroots organization of physicians, nurses and physiotherapists from Newfoundland and Labrador who regularly travel to a hospital in Port-au-Prince and offer medical care. These medical professionals travel during their vacation time and aren’t paid for their work in Haiti.
Then and Now
Team Broken Earth’s Newfoundland chapter has made countless trips to Haiti since it was founded. Dr. Furey has been on more than 20 of those trips, typically travelling to Haiti a few times a year, so he’s seen the direct aftermath of the earthquake and the rebuilding efforts. For instance, that rubble-filled street he encountered during his first stint in Haiti is now a fully functioning four-lane highway. And in the years since the quake, TBE has helped build a new hospital wing, which doubled inpatient capacity, as well as an operating theatre. And the group has acquired an ambulance to drive patients to the hospital where they volunteer. Yes, much has been accomplished, but there is still much work to be done.
Seven years on, people are still living with the injuries sustained during the earthquake. A broken leg that wasn’t treated properly, for instance, continues to be a hindrance in daily life years later. And medical issues that would be caught early on in a country like Canada can develop into life threatening ailments in Haiti. “So then you have this father of five children, he’s the primary breadwinner. He’s 45 years old and then has a massive hypertensive stroke, which could have been adequately treated and recognized earlier had they had access to primary healthcare,” says Dr. Furey. This has huge repercussions on a family’s ability to survive.
It’s not only Haiti that’s changed over the last seven years; TBE has evolved, too. There are now TBE chapters in eight Canadian provinces and the mission is expanding to other countries, including Guatemala, Nicaragua and Bangladesh.
“We don’t take lightly the fact that this initiated in Newfoundland and Labrador. We’re very proud of the fact that it started here, in this province. It’s our idea and it started here and it’s grown. And everywhere I go and talk across the country, people are happy that it started here and they’re happy to raise the Broken Earth flag,” says Dr. Furey.
And Dr. Furey is well aware that while a team of individuals may physically travel to Haiti, there is a much broader team effort at play. He says he is grateful for all the donations in support of their efforts to provide lifesaving healthcare. “It may be our hands but it’s their hearts, and we feel that when we’re down there.” - By Elizabeth Whitten
To make a donation to TBE, visit www.brokenearth.ca. Or join in their annual fundraiser, Rock Op for Haiti, which will be held May 6, 2017 at the Johnson Geo Centre.