UCLA Operation Haiti: A team of 12 UCLA nurses and doctors will assist with medical relief efforts in Haiti. Above, four members of the team, from left to right: registered nurse Patti Taylor, Dr. Ami Ben-Artzi, registered nurse Kathleen Weinstein and Dr. Francis Cyran.
Editor's note: Please see the update to this article, "Haiti relief plans move from shore to ship."
When UCLA emergency room nurse Kate Hurley saw news footage of the devastation in Haiti caused by the recent quake, she felt driven to go and help.
"They were saying they needed health care professionals. To have a skill that people need – it just felt like something I really needed to do," recalled Hurley, who works in the ER at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. So she volunteered.
"I've never done anything like this before, so I had a moment of panic when I got the call that I was really going," she said. "I know it will be hard, emotional and physically – but I'm also very excited to help."
Hurley is one of a dozen UCLA trauma and emergency-room doctors, nurses and surgeons scheduled to arrive in Haiti as early as next week for a two-week stay. They're the first wave of what could be a series of UCLA teams rotating through a field hospital to treat Haitians still suffering from the recent earthquake.
The eight nurses and three doctors already assigned to the UCLA Operation Haiti team are divided into two groups – half operating-room nurses and surgeons, and half emergency-room nurses and doctors – who will staff a new U.S. Navy field hospital in Port-au-Prince for two weeks. The UCLA Health System sent a half-ton of medical and surgical supplies this week to Haiti via Operation USA. The medical system has also reactivated a leave program created to respond to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which allows hospital employees to donate their vacation time to the employees who volunteer in Haiti through UCLA. Elsewhere on campus, donation drives and benefits, like this one on Feb. 4, are taking place.
Dawn Struthers and Armando Guttierrez, managers in Central Services, helped assemble pallets with a half ton of medical and surgical supplies, like bandages, casts and surgical masks to be shipped to Haiti.
Almost immediately after the Haiti earthquake, more than 100 employees from the Reagan medical center and the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center & Orthopaedic Hospital volunteered to take their medical skills to Haiti, but have been frustrated by the logistics of getting there.
"At first, there was so much chaos," said Shannon O'Kelley, associate director of operations in clinical services and the primary organizer of Operation Haiti. "We know we can send people, but how do we send a hospital? You need generators, tents, security and a supply chain. We needed a partner."
The UCLA Health System offered its expertise to several groups, but it was by tapping contacts in the military that the university found a teammate. UCLA's Operation Mend, in which UCLA doctors provide facial reconstruction to maimed soldiers, developed relationships in the military that will now make UCLA Operation Haiti possible.
"It's so devastating to see what's happening in Haiti, and we're eager to help," said Dr. David Feinberg, CEO of the UCLA Hospital System. "It's pretty cool to be able to call the Navy and have them say, 'Sure, you can work with us.'" Now, knowing that the Navy will provide hospital facilities, medical supplies, security, translators, food and shelter, UCLA can safely send in medical teams, Feinberg said. "Our doctors and nurses know how to put people together. We don't know how to set up a tent city and a food supply line."
Everything is happening so fast that no one knows yet for sure when the team will leave or what exactly they'll do in Haiti. At first, the Navy planned to use the team on a hospital ship; now, the team will likely depart Feb. 3 or 4, or even the following week depending on the Navy, to work in the land-based field hospital in Port-au-Prince, O'Kelley said. The volunteers are rushing to get immunizations, put their passports in order and get a cultural primer from UCLA experts like history Professor Lauren Robin Derby, who just returned from the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Priscilla "Patti" Taylor, a clinical nurse specialist lecturer at the School of Nursing, chief manager of Operation Mend and a retired Army nurse, will be UCLA's unofficial team captain in Haiti. Fellow nursing professors are picking up her classes while she is gone.
"I've always had a passion for helping others in crisis or need," Taylor said when asked why she wanted to go. "Hundreds of thousands of people are still injured in Haiti. There are going to be so many amputees. It's almost inconceivable."
Her experience as a military nurse will help her guide some of the younger nurses, she said.
"It will be overwhelming, and I think that's why I was asked to be on the team: I've been there, seen that, smelled it," Taylor said. "It may be rocky for some of the younger nurses — the mass injuries, the dead bodies, the infections. People are dying because of something as simple as broken bones because they're not getting the care to prevent infections."
Dr. Francis Cyran, an orthopedic surgeon at Santa Monica-UCLA who is also on the first Operation Haiti team, is busy rescheduling clinic patients, asking colleagues to follow up with his post-op patients, and finding a good doggie daycare. He anticipates working 16-hour days setting bones, performing amputations and addressing "crush" injuries.
"I have an extensive trauma background, and because I trained in New York and New Jersey, I was there for 9-11," Cyran said. "Sometimes we'd operate for 24 hours straight. I don't know exactly what we'll be doing in Haiti, but it sounds like the doctors have been swamped. This will be going on for quite a while."
O'Kelley, whose valuable contacts with the military through Operation Mend made Operation Haiti happen, said the hospital realized quickly that the quake-ravaged country would need more than short-term aid. After the initial surge of emergency-room teams and surgeons, the country will need infectious-disease specialists to prevent outbreaks as well as family medicine doctors to meet routine medical needs.
"We really want to be able to assist, and not just be a flash in the pan," O'Kelley said. "We're prepared to rotate through for six months."
He also hopes teaming up with the Navy will lead to a formal partnership that can be reactivated at a moment's notice to respond to other disasters. "This gives us something replicable for future events."
Dr. Tom Rosenthal, chief medical officer for the UCLA Hospital System, said they took care in picking from the hundreds of volunteers.
"We didn't want to send a random group of people who wouldn't be able to function as a team. We picked a group we think can collaborate," he said. The volunteers come from a variety of departments and both hospitals.
For now, the strongest call is for medical professionals with trauma or surgical skills, he added. "Sadly, there is still urgent need in Haiti. It has not abated, even after more than two weeks."
To hold down costs, UCLA Health System is finding creative ways to send its services to Haiti. Anonymous donors paid for the half-ton of medical supplies sent to Haiti, including a $25,000 emergency-room pack. The Operation Haiti volunteers will receive paid leave to work in Haiti, thanks to their fellow employees who are donating hundreds of hours of their vacation time to the undertaking. More donors are being tapped to fly the Operation Haiti team to Ft. Lauderdale in Florida, where the volunteers will meet up with the Navy, which will transport them to the field hospital that they'll call home for two weeks.
"This is what I call true-grit nursing," said Taylor, the former military nurse. "You don't have the fancy hospital and all the fancy supplies, but you can still get the job done with dignity and compassion."
A Feb. 4 benefit to raise money for Haiti relief will be held on campus.