Helping Haiti

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Photographer Daniella Zalcman ’09CC spent the last week of January documenting life in Haiti after the earthquake. In this photo, taken in downtown Port-au-Prince, people sift through rubble for building materials and lost personal objects.It was Mary Choi’s third day in Haiti, and the throngs of frail and battered people outside of her medical tent continued to swell. A listless infant wrapped in cotton lay in her arms. The baby girl’s extreme dehydration had caused her veins to shrink into threads, too fragile to take an IV needle.

Choi, a physician studying at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, poured a trickle of fluid into the girl’s mouth, but she wouldn’t swallow. Choi tried again, this time delicately pinching shut the infant’s nostrils. It worked.

For two hours, Choi sat on a wooden chair, in the 100-degree heat, giving sips to the baby. Finally, their ride came and took them to a Swiss pediatric tent an hour away. During the drive, Choi sat in the backseat, determined to revive the infant. As they arrived, the baby let out a cry. It was a beautiful sound, signaling that she would live.

“There are so many people dying there that you start to wonder, ‘What exactly am I accomplishing?’” says Choi, an international emergency medicine fellow at Mailman, who arrived in Haiti five days after the January 12 earthquake and stayed for nearly two weeks. “But you have to tell yourself you can’t save everyone, and the lives you save have to be enough.”

As American news crews leave Haiti, taking the spotlight off that country’s humanitarian crisis, faculty and students from across the University are contributing to Haiti’s relief and reconstruction. For example, about a dozen nurses and physicians from Columbia are there working long hours, treating everyone they can. Both the School of Nursing and the College of Physicians and Surgeons have a rotation list of clinicians committed to practicing in Haiti at least until the fall. Meanwhile, several Columbia public-health specialists are advising relief agencies.

Robert S. Chen, a senior research scientist who directs the University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), is co-chair of the University’s recently created Haiti Task Force, a group of non-medical faculty who meet every Friday to discuss how their programs can contribute to relief efforts. “There are Columbia experts in agricultural development, energy, disaster, risk management, urban planning, ecological restoration, conflict resolution, and climate forecasting involved in relief efforts,” he says. “We want to provide integrated thinking about what’s needed. We want to make sure what we’re doing on the ground is coordinated.”

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