USC Price School of Public Policy

SPPD Grad Leads Medical Team to Haiti

SPPD Grad Leads Medical Team to Haiti

By Ben Dimapindan

Chris Van Gorder with patient

When Scripps Health President and CEO Chris Van Gorder, an alumnus of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, arrived in Haiti to help the victims of the tragic earthquake, he noted how the conditions on the ground were “far different” from what he expected.

“The damage was much worse than I anticipated,” said Van Gorder Master of Public Administration ’86. “Just like everyone else, I watched all the major news stations, but that doesn’t prepare you for the wide scope of devastation.”

Within the past four weeks, Van Gorder – a licensed emergency medical technician and reserve commander in the San Diego Sheriff’s Department search and rescue unit – has led two trips to Haiti on behalf of Scripps Health, a nonprofit health care system based in San Diego, Calif.

The first trip, from Jan. 22 to 26, included only Van Gorder and Scripps Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brent Eastman. It was a mission to assess the people’s medical needs and gather logistics on how their medical response team could best provide treatment to victims of the disaster. Van Gorder and Dr. Eastman helped patients at the Saint Francois de Sales Hospital, located in Port-au-Prince, one mile from the epicenter.

Chris Van Gorder with medical staff

“Patients were being cared for under canopies and in tents because half of the hospital collapsed. There were anywhere from 50 to 200 bodies still entombed,” said Van Gorder, who serves on SPPD’s Board of Councilors.

The hospital’s leaders, as well as Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the official Vatican representative to Haiti, invited them to come back with more doctors and staff.

Van Gorder returned for the second mission – Jan. 29 to Feb. 5 – with a team of 10 physicians, nurses and logistics support staff.

The team performed around a hundred surgeries, including amputations, and hundreds more were treated for crush-related injuries, wounds and infections. And at any given time, there were about 90 patients lying in beds in the courtyard, receiving care, he explained.

“With every patient we were able to care for, you couldn’t help but feel good about being there and helping these people,” Van Gorder said. “There’s no question that if we weren’t there, more patients would have died, more would have lost their limbs.”

Van Gorder also noted that the most important lessons he learned in Haiti were cultural. He said he was surprised by the resiliency and composure of the people he met, particularly in the face of such tragedy.

“I anticipated chaos and issues with people in need demanding services, but it wasn’t like that. There wasn’t crying, there wasn’t screaming. There were long lines for services, but even they were orderly,” Van Gorder said.

“It’s crowded in the city, with enormous amount of damage,” he added, “but life was going on. The second time we were there, gas was available, the streets were crowded, we had traffic jams, the markets were starting to function again — society and life were going on, in the middle of a crisis.”

In addition, many of the skills Van Gorder developed as a graduate student at SPPD – most especially adaptability and teamwork – proved valuable during his work in Haiti.

“We wouldn’t have been successful had we not been flexible, willing to adapt to whatever we saw there,” he said. “We had to learn how to cooperate and work as a team — to build confidence from our patients and to build confidence from Haitian nurses and staff members.”

“At SPPD, when you’re working on projects, there are certainly the underpinnings of academics and theory, but you’re also learning to be flexible within a team; you don’t always get to do it your own way,” he added. “Those skills are incredibly important in life and in business, and we had to use them in Haiti.”

Presently, Scripps Health maintains daily contact with the Saint Francois de Sales Hospital and is facilitating a large donation of medical supplies and equipment, such as trauma tables, to the hospital, Van Gorder said. Also, plans are being made for another Scripps mission to Haiti.

“Between my first trip and second trip, there was dramatic improvement, and I hope to see the improvements continue,” he said. “I’d like to go back. I think it will give me a better feeling about the future of some of the people we took care of.”

According to Van Gorder, the most rewarding part of his time in Haiti was helping to save lives. He added that he was proud to help advance SPPD’s and USC’s work of making a positive, vital impact in society.

“Every day, USC helps to improve living conditions within Los Angeles and Southern California,” he said. “And, in this case, I’m proud to be able to take USC to Haiti as well.”

Photos courtesy of Scripps Health