Mission to Haiti
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Mission to Haiti

The needs persist

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Dr. Howard Zucker examins one of the children in the orphanage. COURTESY DR. ZUCKER

Dr. Howard Zucker of Cliffside Park recently returned from a week in Haiti, where he used his skills as anesthesiologist and pediatrician to bring sorely needed services to earthquake victims. “It’s very sad,” he said. “It’s amazing how one event could impact every single person you cross paths with.” The Jan. 12 earthquake was estimated to have killed over 200,000, injured hundreds of thousands of others, and left a million people homeless. The magnitude 7 quake destroyed or hopelessly damaged hundreds of thousands of residences and commercial buildings.

Zucker did not join the rescue efforts immediately after the disaster; he understood that weeks and months later there would still be enormous need for medical assistance. “The situation is still difficult,” he said. “In a couple of months the need will still be there. It’s important that people recognize that the needs persist.”

Zucker, who has M.D., J.D. and L.L.M. degrees, has a résumé that could describe the accomplishments of several busy professionals. Graduating high school at 15, college at 19, and George Washington University Medical School at age 22, Zucker has worked at Yale University School of Medicine, MIT, and the National Institutes of Health, and ran the pediatric intensive care unit at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He served in the U.S. government under Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and worked for the World Health Organization, in charge of health technology and pharmaceuticals. Last spring he led a study group on global health diplomacy at Harvard Kennedy School. He is currently senior advisor in the Division of Global Health and Human Rights at Massachusetts General Hospital. He has combined his medical and legal training to develop and improve health policy and the quality of health care in the U.S. and worldwide.

During his week of volunteering in Haiti, Zucker spent most of his time at Sacre Coeur Hospital in Milot, about 70 miles north of Port-au-Prince, where many victims had been airlifted. The 73-bed facility became one of the busiest hospitals in Haiti after the quake because it did not sustain damage, and also had a system in place for rehabilitation and recovery of patients.

The crisis in Haiti involves “individuals whose lives are completely upside down. Their lives are still upside down,” said Zucker. Even before the earthquake Haiti’s millions of impoverished people did not have access to modern medical services.

“Haiti is not that far from southern Florida, yet there’s such a difference in resources,” Zucker noted. “The situation was quite challenging before the earthquake. I want to figure out how to improve public health in Haiti.”

The doctor described some of the cases he faced. “There was a child with marked hydrocephaly – water on the brain. In the U.S. they would have put a shunt in long, long before the child was [in] as bad [shape]. We had a discussion about what to do.” When hydrocephaly is treated early in infants, most babies will recover with no long-term damage. But the Haitian child had no access to treatment and had already suffered serious brain damage.

“This was an ethical discussion that would never occur in the U.S. The decision was to send the kid to an orphanage and not do anything medically,” said Zucker. If they had intervened at that point there were no mechanisms to follow up on the severely disabled child.

Zucker was deeply touched by another case – that of a 3-month-old baby girl who had been buried in the rubble for four days. “It was unbelievable,” he said, “that you could survive buried under for so long.” All the family members apparently had been killed in the quake, leaving the little girl the lone survivor. “She’s doing pretty well,” he added. “There were other amazing stories of survival there as well.”

Another young patient inspired Zucker with her courage and optimism. “I saw a little girl sitting in the tent. She was cute – with braided hair, and a big smile on her face. She lost her leg, but still had the ability to get a smile,” he said. “This is something that kids in America should see. The [Haitian children] have the ability to find joy in many small things.”

Zucker and others have noted that Haitians suffer from a range of health problems. “Everybody has high blood pressure,” he said. “Either it’s the stress or some other factor or combination of factors. The chronic level of hypertension leads to a shorter life expectancy.”

Zucker also reported that “the people looked so much older than their years – more worn.”

“The poverty in the community – how do you fix all that? We did surgeries and procedures and you try to do what you can. But they need follow up.” He explained that as teams of medical volunteers left they passed the patients on to the next group of volunteers and hoped for the best.

Zucker’s tremendous record of achievement includes working on crises such as the anthrax attacks in the United States and developing the “Afghan Family Health Book” to improve public health literacy for millions of Afghanis.

But he is particularly proud of his work in the development of the Medical Reserve Corps. Zucker arrived in Washington, D.C., on September 4, 2001, as a White House Fellow – just a few days before the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Shortly after the attacks, Zucker proposed the Medical Reserve Corps, a program to bring doctors and nurses together in cooperative groups to help Americans in times of crisis. “Doctors and nurses in the same community don’t know each other,” he explained. “The program provides the opportunity for all the health professionals to work together.”

“The proposal was given to Secretary Thompson who sent it to President Bush, and he loved it,” said Zucker. The program started off with $10 million and 10 pilot programs involving 1,000 volunteers. “Now it has expanded to 900 programs with 200,000 American volunteers, in every state of the union. It’s a major program run out of the Surgeon General’s Office.”

Bergen County was among the first 10 program sites. Some examples of the joint projects include addressing diabetes and obesity in children and combating smoking in junior high school students.

Zucker speculated on how to address inequities in resources, poverty in developing nations, and responses to catastrophes. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the developing world,” he noted. “Is it the role of the public sector? The private sector? Wealthy nations? Just the U.S.? Things are changing. Now everyone feels an obligation.”

Zucker’s career includes decades of improving medical services all over the world. His work with the World Health Organization brought him to 70 countries. “My job with the WHO involved parts of the world where there are no resources at all,” he said. “Having traveled the whole world, you wonder how on one planet there can be such a discrepancy in resources.”

“I tend to be an optimist,” he added, “believing that if you want to push things forward you can.”

Although Zucker has been to 70 countries on his medical missions, Israel was not one of them. “There are many other areas where there was more need,” he said, noting that medical personnel from Israel joined volunteers from other countries helping the survivors in Haiti. Zucker was particularly impressed by reports about the Israeli field hospital in Port-au-Prince. “In the future if there were another disaster,” he said, “I would ask them if I could join their team.”

Zucker said that news coverage on the Internet and cable stations puts people more in touch with disasters and their aftermaths. “The only worry” about such widespread coverage, he added, “is that we don’t want people to get saturated and stop giving.”

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