UCLA Nurse Bethany Fontenot is working 12-hour days, fighting nausea induced by anti-malaria medication and battling homesickness — all to help Haitians she's never met.
She's part of a seven-member UCLA medical team volunteering in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. UCLA Health System partnered with the Navy to staff a military hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, which docked at Port-au-Prince.
Six of the seven members of the Operation Haiti team meet at their final pre-departure briefing. From left to right: Holly Phelan, Bethany Fontenot, Priscilla "Patti" Taylor, Bita Zadeh, Kathleen Weinstein, Jessica Kubisch.
The UCLA Operation Haiti team is now nearing the end of their two-week deployment, and though many more doctors and nurses volunteered, the Comfort is shipping out now that many Haitian hospitals have re-opened.
"It's a gift to us to be able to do this," said Holly Phelan, an ICU nurse now in Haiti. "So many nurses volunteered to do this. We all want to help, and I'm one of the lucky ones getting the chance to go."
Before the team left UCLA, Phelan and her fellow volunteers had to immerse themselves in preparation. They attended cultural primer sessions by faculty and put their passports in order. They submitted to a regimen of vaccine injections and daily preventative medicines and learned about shipboard life. They filled out stacks of forms required by the military and volunteered to blog about the trip. Then they all gathered at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center for a final briefing two days before their Valentine's Day departure.
Surgical nurse Kathleen Weinstein's husband Mel joined the briefing. "I just want to know what she'll be doing for the next two weeks," he said with a grin. Her trip marks the longest the couple has been apart in their 18-year marriage. But her husband cheered her on. "I'm so proud of her," he said.
Mel and Kathy Weinstein, two days before she traveled to Haiti.
Anesthesiologist Dr. Bita Zadeh said the heartbreak she saw on TV news compelled her to volunteer. "From the first footage I saw of the catastrophe, I was thinking, 'I wish I could go help,'" she said before deploying. "I'm only nervous about the unexpected – the social or emotional situations we don't see at UCLA."
UCLA Health System staff designed the pre-deployment briefings to address those concerns. Amy Bullock, director of UCLA's Child Life/Child Development Services at Mattel Children's Hospital, gave the group advice about working with children under severe stress.
"Think about what they've been through, in addition to understanding that they most likely are not with adults who are familiar to them,” Bullock advised. They will be in “a foreign environment with people who aren't speaking their language, asking them to do things that are probably uncomfortable and painful," she told the volunteers. "It's real hard on them."
Too much stimuli – lots of people, loud noises, multiple conversations – can make children's stress worse, Bullock said.
"Any opportunities you have to lower your voice, to speak softly, to give them a tender touch, to sing, tell jokes, to swaddle them or cuddle them for the young ones, are all very important," she said. "If you know a little French or have a child who speaks English, engage them in conversation. … Kids do very well when they get small pieces of information: 'The next step is you're going to lie on the bed.' And, 'Next you're going to feel something cold.'"
Left to right: Haiti volunteers Jessica Kubisch, Bethany Fontenot and Holly Phelan review documents at their final pre-departure briefing.
Fontenot wrote in an e-mail from Haiti that offering comfort has proven just as important as caring for their wounds.
"The children we are treating here face a long and difficult road,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Many have lost their families and suffered terrible injuries. The pediatric nurses have been so vital in not only treating the children's wounds and healing their bodies, but by consoling and comforting them after a truly traumatic experience. The children cling to the nurses, receiving reassurance that just isn't available anywhere else."
At the pre-departure briefing, Haiti-bound volunteer Priscilla "Patti" Taylor, a clinical nurse specialist lecturer at the School of Nursing and a retired Army nurse with experience working in disaster zones, prepped her teammates on what to expect on the first leg of their journey, from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where they rendezvoused with the Navy. With her experience, she is the quasi-den mother to the rest of the group.
The Navy would issue them papers with their military orders permitting the group to be in Haiti. "Keep those in your passport," she instructed. "Have your nursing license, your driver’s license, your passport and those military orders with you at all times. You can't go anywhere without them."
Haiti volunteer Dr. Bita Zadeh laughs during a moment of levity at the team's final briefing.
The team's 6 a.m. flight from L.A. to Florida came with a pill: "Sunday morning, you get to take your first Malaria pill, so that will be a bonus with breakfast," Taylor said. "If we have a layover, we'll go to the USO. They're really cool." Pack skid-proof sneakers, she advised, in case navigating the boat requires climbing ladders between decks.
The team arranged a time to check in with UCLA Health System everyday so that the staff could relay messages to and from family members, or ask for advice. Kety Duran, director of the health system's Human Resources Operations & Staff Development, provided a "what to pack" list, and reminded the volunteers to keep receipts if they needed to buy any of the supplies. Everyone on the team received a stack of UCLA gear – polos, windbreakers, caps, hospital scrubs and more.
"I thought I was volunteering to be tired and dirty and somewhat unsafe,” Phelan noted. Instead, “They're taking care of us in every way."
That's the idea, said Dr. David Feinberg, CEO of the UCLA Hospital System. "We knew we could get our people there and that you could help patients," he told the team. But until the partnership with the Navy developed, "We didn't know who was going to give you water and a place to sleep."
Shannon O'Kelley, associate director of operations in clinical services and the primary organizer of Operation Haiti, sent them on their way with a final word. "Look out for one another."
Learn more about the volunteers' trip from the Operation Haiti blog.