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Area woman "drives" to provide help in Haiti

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A view of Tent City in Port-au-Prince as the Missouri-1 Diaster Assistance Medical Team arrived in Haiti's capital city for their two-week deployment.
On Jan. 22, Cassville pharmacist Cathi Primrose was deployed to Haiti for a two-week mission. Her opportunity to help with the post-earthquake recovery efforts in Port-au-Prince came through her involvement as a member of the Missouri-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).

The MO-1 DMAT team is part of the National Disaster Medical System that operates under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. DMATs are medical response teams that provide emergency medical care during a disaster or other unusual events.

The trip to Haiti was Primrose's first deployment since she was recruited to join MO-1 DMAT in 2005. It was also her team's first international mission. Typically, DMATs are deployed within the boundaries of the United States.

When Primrose looks back on the two weeks she spent in Haiti, she remembers working, sleeping (a little) and eating MREs (military ready-to-eat meals). Her 35-member team set up a field hospital in the Gheskio section of Port-au-Prince, and it was Primrose's job to work with two other deployed pharmacists to run the pharmacy that supplied the compound with all its medicine.

Each day, her team, working shifts around the clock, would see around 150 patients and also perform numerous surgeries. Hurting people lined up outside of the compound gates waiting to be seen, and Primrose said those lines were usually so long she couldn't see the end.

The nurses, doctors, EMTs, pharmacists and logistics personnel who made up Primrose's DMAT team were assigned 12-hour shifts, but everyone worked longer, Primrose said.

"When I first arrived, I was excited to get there and start helping," said Primrose. "We had to learn fast and cope (with the supplies we had.) Basically, it came down to who needs what the fastest."

Primrose also remembers the names, and the faces, of some of the children her team assisted. One of their patients was a 7-year-old girl named Berlina, who was caught in the rubble and had to have her foot amputated.

"We had Berlina the whole two weeks," said Primrose. "She was a beautiful little girl, but she never smiled."

During the course of Berlina's stay at the field hospital, staff members learned that Berlina's mother had died when she was young and her dad left her with her grandmother. When the earthquake hit, Berlina was under the rubble.

"Berlina's grandmother thought she was dead and had a heart attack and died," said Primrose. "It wasn't until one of our logistics guys cut down a pair of pediatric crutches to fit Berlina that we saw her smile. She was such a pretty little thing."

When the team left Haiti, a friend of Berlina's grandmother came and got her.

During the team's two-week mission, Primrose said conditions in Port-au-Prince seemed to be improving.

Upon arrival in the ravaged city, team members put Vicks under their nose to combat the stench of death that permeated the city.

"It was the smell of death and rotting everywhere," said Primrose. "After a while, we didn't smell it anymore.

"From the first day we went in until the day we left, we saw a lot of progress," said Primrose. "When we left, there were gas stations open, and vendors on the streets selling things."

The conditions Primrose experienced while in Haiti were austere. There was only one toilet to serve the whole compound, and it took four days to get a shower installed.

"And when we did get the shower set up, it was just a dribble and no hot water," said Primrose. "There's no make-up, no hair dryers. You're there to help. You're not there for yourself."

Even with the tough conditions, Primrose said she would not hesitate to go back.

"It didn't scare me off," said Primrose. "The 82nd Airborne guarded the perimeter (of the hospital compound), and if anyone went out into the city, they had guards with them with guns. I didn't feel a bit frightened."

In assessing her experience in Haiti, Primrose is very humble.

"I'm not special," said Primrose. "I feel driven to do this. It's something I have to do. Helping others is why we're in healthcare to begin with. It's part of our nature."

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