In the aftermath of the disastrous earthquake in Haiti, nurse Joshua Isaacs found himself part of a U.S. government disaster medical assistance team, treating up to 500 people a day in cramped tent hospitals.
The Piscataway resident and charge nurse at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark arrived four days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, which claimed some 200,000 lives. He would spend the next 14 days living in primitive conditions and tending to the injured and sick.
“We found a lot of people in the streets, including some homeless people who normally live on the streets, who were suffering acute illnesses and conditions,” said Isaacs.
He and his wife, Sally, are active members of Temple Sholom in Fanwood, where their daughter, Hannah, became a bat mitzva last year.
Isaacs served as both staff nurse and deputy administrative officer for the team, whose members were medical professionals from throughout New Jersey.
Setting up field hospitals in Port-au-Prince and nearby Petionville, the team operated outside a tent city housing 40,000 survivors.
“There were a lot of orthopedic injuries, broken bones and crushed extremities, lacerations, and amputations,” said Isaacs. “We saw a lot of chronic health issues, shortness of breath, and asthma for which these people had never had any previous medical care. We saw children who were malnourished and undersized because of the conditions in their country.”
On a happier note, the team also delivered three healthy babies.
‘Relying on each other’
Isaacs, 39, has been with the medical assistance team for nine years and was previously sent to treat victims in parts of the United States after such disasters as hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav. The Haiti assignment was the first time team members, who are paid by the government and are under the auspices of the Department of Health and Human Services, have been sent overseas. There are 43 such teams throughout the nation, but the NJ team was on call in January so it was among the six or seven teams tapped for assignment.
“We found people were orderly and respectful, knowing that the Americans were there to help them,” said Isaacs. “I also found it very interesting that people were very community-oriented and self-sufficient and really were relying on each other.
“They were very grateful for the care we were there to provide.”
When the team arrived, few destroyed buildings had been cleared, and structures had “pancaked down.”
“It looked like a bomb went off, and there was dust everywhere,” said Isaacs, who said it was so bad they had to wear masks in the hot and humid climate.
“There were all crumbled buildings and safety issues everywhere,” a situation that initially hampered the medical teams. Security was provided by the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which assisted members in getting to smaller communities to treat minor injuries so that the medical facility could treat the more seriously injured.
Team members also got a taste of what Haitians were going through. The first few days after arriving the team slept in sleeping bags on the lawn of the U.S. Embassy, then moved to the tennis courts. Meals consisted of MREs — meals ready to eat — in pouches. Bathroom and laundry facilities were primitive.
“You kind of let your clothes air out at night and put them back on in the morning,” said Isaacs. “I took maybe three or four showers the whole time I was there. There were three things you put on each day — deodorant, bug repellant, and sun block.”
Disease transmission by mosquitoes was a major concern, and Isaacs had to receive immunizations for typhoid and other diseases as well as preventative malaria medication.
He deemed the first overseas mission of the team a success, adding, “There were a lot of lessons learned about how to operate in a foreign country.”