Haitians Under U.S. Treatment Are Often Separated From Families
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The reasons for the bureaucratic tangle are unclear. Patients who arrive on the Comfort are immediately entered into an electronic record-keeping system. Tracking them should be a matter of a few mouse clicks. The hospital ship has supported numerous international relief efforts for years, so the need to provide answers to families should not have been a surprise. The Comfort had been deployed to Haiti before, as recently as last spring.
To be sure, the massive scale of the disaster, the deaths of Haitian officials and destruction of infrastructure have posed numerous challenges to coordination and communication. Last week, public affairs officers with the U.S. Joint Information Center for Haiti could not provide an explanation for the delay in making patient information available to families, except to say that the Comfort was working with non-governmental organizations to come up with a solution. "It’s very, very important to us," said one officer. "As soon as we can get that information out, we’ll let everybody know."
Lt. David Shark, a Navy assistant public affairs officer working on the Comfort, said on Sunday that a patient hot line for the ship was established on Saturday. However, he did not have the number and did not provide it after several requests. He also said that family members are allowed to travel to the ship with patients, and some have done so. But many field hospital personnel had been unaware of that.
Medical transports with unaccompanied children have been another disturbing problem. Last week, a U.S. Navy helicopter hovered over the American field hospital. A soldier descended a zip line carrying a baby whose head was grossly enlarged. The only information the hospital was given was that the baby had "water on the brain." The helicopter's propeller wash sprayed debris into the eyes of two medical workers and wreaked havoc in an adjacent "tent city" where thousands huddled under sheets propped up by tree branches.
Roughly a dozen other children were delivered to the American field hospital in recent days without family members, documents or even minimal information on where the children were being transported from.
Vanessa Rouzier, a pediatrician at a Haitian medical clinic, Gheskio, that is hosting the American field hospital, was outraged by the practice. "To me it’s shocking and unethical," she said. "It has to stop. You end up with orphans who may not be orphans."
Rouzier said rumors were flying among Haitians that foreigners were abducting children or stealing patients’ organs. (On Sunday, 10 members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Idaho were arrested in Haiti amid accusations that they tried to spirit children out of the country to the Dominican Republic.)
"Many people are getting offended," Rouzier said. "‘How can you take my sister for five days now and not even tell me if she’s alive or dead?’ That would be a scandal in the U.S. Then they take minors without parents for amputations."
Staff at the American field hospital began making arrangements for a nearby orphanage to accept the unaccompanied children after they were treated. In the meantime, the Americans turned the hospital’s post-operative tent into a nursery and assigned staff to provide comfort and care. Some bonded with the children and began asking whether adoption might be possible.
Ultimately Rouzier and her colleagues located close relatives of nearly all of the children.
She and other Haitians said they were impressed and overwhelmed by America’s generosity, even as they were concerned by the missteps.
Doing good, Rouzier said, needs to be done the right way.