Marian Benjamin

From its earliest days when its indigenous population suffered near-extinction at the hands of Europeans, Haiti has been beset by revolutions, coups d’etat, invasions, and occupations—including one by the United States that lasted from 1915 to 1934.1 A series of venal presidents, from “Papa Doc” to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, impoverished the country and made themselves rich at the expense of the populace.

The result is a country with virtually no infrastructure, no natural resources, and terrible poverty. No wonder then that the 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12 has been so devastating. The lack of building codes was almost a guarantee that buildings would collapse, trapping thousands of people and leaving more thousands homeless. The injuries have been horrible, many requiring amputations and surgeries in ghastly settings. Seeing the suffering—especially in the children—is heartbreaking. So many of them have been left orphaned and injured in ways that are hard to comprehend. Some have been lucky enough to be airlifted out of Haiti to hospitals in other countries where they can get the care they need. But most are forced to stay in orphanages, where the care is minimal and food and water are scarce.

Everyone wants to do something to help, and many governmental and nongovernmental organizations have stepped in to offer food, water, and medical care. On January 18, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent in its disaster medical assistance team (DMAT). According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, HHS, respiratory care specialists are among the members of DMAT and the equipment includes ventilators. Although their roles so far are secondary to emergency services personnel, RCPs may be called upon when the effects of the massive amounts of dust and other noxious agents from crumbled buildings make themselves obvious—especially in adults and children who already have asthma or other respiratory problems. One of RT’s editorial board members wrote, “It is too early to know what percentage of the hundreds (thousands) of patients who are receiving medical care are having respiratory problems—certainly a big number. Also, we know from 9/11 that long-term lung problems may develop.”

Over the next months, control of communicable diseases and exacerbations of chronic diseases, such as respiratory illness, will need to be addressed. But it will be years before we understand the earthquake’s lasting impact on the health of the Haitian people.

What can you do? Send in a donation to one of the many well-established organizations that are experienced in dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. (Note: One health care system has allowed its employees to cash out some of their paid-time-off hours and donate to a Haiti relief effort.)

If you do donate, make sure that your contributions go to a legitimate organization. Here is a link to an article that lists some of these relief groups Don’t take the author’s word for it, though; do your homework first—the scammers are out there.

Marian Benjamin
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  1. Occupation of Haiti (1915-34). Available at: Accessed January 15, 2010.