Treating Cholera in Haiti: Where We Should Be

This weekend I realized, and saw first hand, the importance of International Medical Corps’ approach.  This may sound silly, as I have been here for almost two months assisting with the cholera response, but the days are busy and I do not always take time to reflect on our daily work.

At the request of a local hospital director, I traveled with our mobile medical unit (MMU) and another International Medical Corps doctor to a cholera treatment center (CTC) that had been previously run by another organization. The group left when cases started to drop, as many groups do. Unfortunately, cases rose dramatically just one week later.

It is important to say here that Haiti’s cholera outbreak is now quickly dissipating, thanks to the quick and efficient work of many international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But what happened at this CTC highlighted how critical it is to engage and train locals, no matter how fast-paced the response.

Because no local staff were involved in running this particular CTC, there were no longer any doctors or nurses in the community who were competent in cholera case management. This vital knowledge left with the aid workers.

We arrived on Friday morning to a state of chaos. There were more than 40 patients lying on cots and slouched on benches, as flies swarmed around and the sun beat down. It was a drastically different sight from the International Medical Corps CTC that I manage, where after weeks of training, coaching, and working side-by-side with local doctors and nurses, I am only needed to deliver supplies and offer guidance on particularly difficult cases.

But this was not the case this particular Friday. Instead, I ran around with our MMU nurses, hurriedly coaching the local staff and barking orders, feeling the urgency of the situation. By the end of the day, we had not lost a single patient, but I did not feel proud or fulfilled. While our team had saved lives that day, there was no grace in what we did.

Riding back home, sticky with sweat and my feet aching, I reflected on why I felt numb and exhausted rather than invigorated. I realized that we had not left the community any better off then when we got there. Of course we had saved lives, but we had not prepared them to take care of themselves and each other the next time cholera struck.  We too took the knowledge away when we left.

This day made me recognize the importance of International Medical Corps’ mission, and what makes us unique as an organization. There is no doubt that it is easier and faster to go into humanitarian emergencies as a group of experts and treat people ourselves. In my two months here in Haiti, there have been many moments where I have wanted to jump in and do it myself. But then I am reminded that while that may be easier in the moment, it is not sustainable.

Training will always save more lives in the long run.That day I took solace in the fact that we had scheduled a training for everyone at the CTC the following week and that they soon would be able to manage patients and I, along with other guests in this country, would only be in the background, where we should be.

Help us save lives.