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Alumni respond to call for Haitian relief

Katie Peralta | Monday, February 8, 2010

Fundraising and advocacy are two immediate term relief efforts in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. Rebuilding the country’s institutions like the medical care system is one long-term effort the University is now undertaking, Brennan Bollman, a Notre Dame graduate and the 2009 valedictorian, said.

Last week, the University sent out a formal appeal to alumni of a variety of medical professions, from plastic surgery to dentistry, through the Tom Dooley Society to organize consistent schedules for physician participation in sustained medical relief at a field hospital in Léogâne, where Notre Dame’s Haiti Program is based.

“We’re trying to balance varying times that people would be able to give,” Bollman said. “Ten-day trips for some, seven to eight days for more surgically oriented people. We are open to people who are willing to offer longer-term support.”

The purpose of the outreach to the wide range of alumni doctors, she said, is to ensure there are medical caregivers present at all times.

“We want to provide effective care and we want to make sure our teams overlap so that there always is care and the service is present,” she said. “That’s the idea for now.”

Bollman said the University’s initiatives are a part of an effort to rebuild and sustain Haiti’s own institutions along with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have experience working in Léogâne, which is located about 18 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince.

“We will be located on a temporary site where we can provide medical care for at least the next six months,” Bollman said. “We will asses how we can work this into the Haitian medical system long-term.”

Bollman, who is taking a one-year leave of absence from Harvard Medical School, is a part of the next group of Notre Dame alumni who will go down to the devastated Caribbean nation to provide medical care to earthquake victims.

“What we’re taking care of with teams over next several weeks is acute trauma issues,” Bollman said. “Notre Dame alumni have been performing amputations, [treating] fractures [and other] pretty serious wounds.”

Ralph Pennino, a plastic surgeon and ‘75 graduate, is president of an NGO called InterVol, which coordinates groups of doctors to go down to Haiti. InterVol, Pennino said, recently sponsored ’09 graduate Joey Leary to work with patients suffering from lymphatic filariasis in Haiti.

Pennino, along with fellow alumni physicians Kevin Olehnik, ’78, and Dan Towle, ’77, initiated efforts through InterVol to involve other alumni doctors and their associates in providing medical services to victims.

Pennino returned from Haiti Saturday after a two-week trip working in a makeshift hospital, which Pennino and his friends affectionately dubbed “The Léogâne Shock Trauma Hospital,” in a nursing school that survived earthquake.

Pennino said after the earthquake hit, the entire mission of the Notre Dame Haiti Program as well as its affiliate NGOs changed.

“When the quake hit, what we did was change surgical mission into a disaster relief mission,” Pennino said. “We put together an emergency response.”

Part of the response effort included delivery of more than 8,000 pounds of donated food and medical supplies as well as an outpouring of medical services.

Since the earthquake, Pennino said his team has performed more than 180 surgeries and treats between 100 and 300 patients daily.

Surgeons volunteering in the country, however, still have much work ahead of them, he said.

“We have not even scratched the surface of the injuries,” Pennino said. “We will have to address all the other healthcare needs that a community has, like delivering babies and hypertension.”

Pennino said his team is lucky to have the resources in Haiti already set in place by Notre Dame’s Haiti Program.

“We’re very fortunate that Notre Dame residence was there,” Pennino said, adding it provided physicians a place to stay.

Notre Dame’s Haiti contacts, he said, were an additional asset to their efforts.

“Without [Haitian director] Jean Mark Brisseau, it would have been very difficult,” he said.

Pennino said Brisseau has played an integral role in coordinating food and medical delivery efforts to the devastated region.

Bollman said efforts of Pennino and other doctors have provided an example to be followed for further relief.

“[Dr. Pennino] has been absolutely unbelievable in organizing teams and transportation,” she said. “He is an immensely selfless person who has worked nonstop to make this happen.”

Both Pennino and Bollman emphasize the need for involvement throughout the entire Notre Dame community.

“What Haiti needs is solidarity,” Brennan said. “Values I learned at Notre Dame, like solidarity and the Catholic social teaching, call me down [to Haiti].”

Bollman said she feels a strong emotional connection with the country where she spent a summer in college and where she will return to offer medical services.

“It would be hard for me to continue my medical studies right now because my heart is totally in Haiti,” she said. “I still have a lot of friends down there.”