California Doctor Combines Passion for Medicine with Love of Travel
By Sonia Lowman, Communications Officer, International Medical Corps
April 4, 2012— Dr. Aaron Harries got the “travel bug” young—listening to his high school teacher reminisce about his own journeys in the 1970s. At age 17, Aaron organized a trip for 3 of his friends to backpack across Europe for 5 weeks. He went on to become a doctor and extend his love of travel to volunteer medical trips in post-crisis and developing countries. Aaron, now age 36, has been to over 70 countries—including 3 trips volunteering with International Medical Corps.
Aaron was a resident at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California’s Alameda County when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. The hospital received several urgent requests from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) seeking medical volunteers, and Aaron connected with International Medical Corps. He worked with our teams in Haiti for two weeks, five weeks after the earthquake.
According to Aaron, “International Medical Corps basically ran the emergency department at the main public Port-au-Prince hospital (HUEH) for six months after the devastating earthquake.” Many Haitian health workers had died in the earthquake and the rest were still struggling to recover and take care of their families. So Aaron helped International Medical Corps fill hospital staffing gaps, directly providing emergency care. With patients refusing to go inside buildings because of aftershocks, International Medical Corps operated out of tents, triaging up to 900 people a day—“an extraordinary number,” Aaron emphasizes.
Aaron became invested in International Medical Corps during this time because the organization “lives up to its mission of delivering health care to underserved populations in emergency contexts and chronic disasters.” International Medical Corps also emphasizes sustainability by “training local staff to improve health care in the long-term.” Aaron points out that most of the NGOs that came from all over the world to assist with emergency care at HUEH have since pulled out of Haiti—but International Medical Corps stayed.
In November 2011, Aaron took his second trip to Haiti with International Medical Corps. A year and a half later, things had improved; the buildings had been stabilized and the hospital had moved back indoors. Most importantly, says Aaron, “NGOs were no longer staffing HUEH; Haitians had taken it back and were running it, which was great to see.” Aaron stayed in Haiti for a month, helping our team train medical residents and firemen in Port-au-Prince on trauma care. As Haiti was one of the poorest countries even prior to the earthquake, it “didn’t before have the capacity to handle high-level critical care medicine.” But now that capacity does exist in part thanks to International Medical Corps’ training and rehabilitation programs—in other words, “some positives did come out.”
Aaron recently returned from South Sudan—his third trip with International Medical Corps. South Sudan’s Akobo County poses incredible logistical challenges and is nearly impossible to access during the extended rainy season. Here, our teams work in a 50 bed in-patient hospital that averages 150-200 patient visits per day. We also conduct trauma trainings to prepare local staff to deal with mass casualty situations, as tribal fighting often takes place in the region. Over the last year, Aaron and our other emergency physician volunteers have been working with village clinics and Akobo County Hospital to implement a triage system. Local health workers put the training into practice when approximately 114 people were killed in ethnic fighting at the end of Aaron’s 5 weeks in Akobo.
Aaron says that if International Medical Corps did not work in Akobo, residents would “have nowhere else to turn.” He cites the example of a four-year-old boy who inhaled a plastic bead but was not brought to the hospital for four days. By the time Aaron saw him, the boy was in severe respiratory distress—“something that would scare any doctor in the U.S.” Removing the bead with a bronchoscope would be a relatively simple procedure in a developed country, but they lacked the instrument in Akobo. So International Medical Corps arranged to have the boy and his mother fly to Juba, and finally on to Nairobi, Kenya to have the procedure, which was done successfully. If International Medical Corps had not been there, “the boy definitely would not have survived.”
Today, Aaron works as an attending physician and teacher at Highland Hospital, which he says is “the perfect training ground for international work.” Meanwhile, volunteering with International Medical Corps makes Aaron feel “deeply honored” because it allows him to “practice medicine where people need it most” and “get back to the basics of medicine.” Further, volunteering allows Aaron to see many different cultures and get to know people around the world on a much deeper level than he ever would as a tourist. Through his travels, Aaron has come to “better understand not only the medical condition, but also the human condition—how we come from different walks of life, but we’re all the same.” To Aaron, this means that everyone—no matter who they are or where they live—has the right to be healthy and access basic health care.
Ultimately, Aaron states, “International Medical Corps has allowed me to carry out my purpose in life. International Medical Corps makes that happen.”