Scholars, Alums from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Programs Heeded the Call for Help in Haiti after Earthquake

    • May 11, 2010

For decades, Haitian-American Fritz Francois, M.D., M.S., had yearned to return to the country he left behind when he was 10 years old, but his busy life as a physician, researcher and administrator in New York kept getting in the way.

But Francois—a gastroenterologist in the department of internal medicine, the assistant dean for academic affairs and diversity at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, and a scholar with the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program—finally got an opportunity to make his long-awaited homecoming last winter.

Sadly, the visit was not the joyous occasion he had wished for. Francois flew to Haiti just 10 days after the devastating January 12 earthquake struck to help Haitians in need.

“When the quake happened it seemed immediately that everything that I had done throughout my life had prepared me for that moment,” he recalls. “It wasn’t even a question of whether I was going to go. It was simply a question of when.”

Immediately after hearing news of the quake, Francois assembled a multidisciplinary team of volunteer health care providers and arranged transportation via a private plane to the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. For about a week, he and his colleagues practiced emergency medicine during the day and slept in tents on a college campus by night.

Francois, it turns out, was not the only physician affiliated with the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program who offered medical care in his homeland.

At least two other physicians born in Haiti—Vernat Exil, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., and a professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, and Macarthur Charles, M.D., Ph.D., an instructor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College—also provided care after the quake.

Exil is an alumnus of, and Charles is a current scholar in, the Harold Amos program, which gives four-year mentored career development research awards to junior faculty who are racial or ethnic minorities, come from low-income families, or face other kinds of social barriers. It is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

Exil spent the last week of January as a pediatrician at a makeshift hospital run by the University of Miami and the Miami Children’s Hospital and hopes to provide longer-term primary pediatric care services to Haitian children in the future. “I felt that giving money was not enough,” he says. “I felt compelled to go and help.”

Harold Amos Program Scholar Survived Quake, Helped Others

Charles, meanwhile, survived the quake himself. On January 12, he was happily going about his daily business researching HIV resistance at the Gheskio Center in Port-au-Prince, the world’s first HIV/AIDS clinic. It was founded in 1982 to treat a rise in deaths from Kaposi’s sarcoma and other opportunistic infections.

As Charles was walking out of the clinic, the ground started to move beneath his feet. He took cover and watched the earth rise and fall like ocean waves. People and buildings fell to the ground. A massive dust cloud rose into the sky.

The physician researcher quickly took on a new role as emergency responder. Unscathed, he got up, brushed himself off and began directing the injured to a nearby children’s hospital and quickly began providing emergency care.

In the tumultuous days that followed, Charles helped transform the Gheskio Center into an inpatient hospital. Four months later, Charles is still in Haiti and has no immediate plans to leave. “There is so much need that it would be difficult to turn my back on this now,” he says. “I feel almost a moral obligation to be here.”

Clinical Scholars Provide Care

Several RWJF Clinical Scholars also volunteered in Haiti after the quake. The Clinical Scholars program offers physicians two years of graduate-level study and research as part of a university-based, post-residency training program.

Rebecca Dudovitz, M.D., a Clinical Scholar in the 2009 cohort at the University of California in Los Angeles, left her young son in February to join a two-week volunteer trip organized by International Medical Corps. A pediatrician by training, Dudovitz provided primary care health services out of a makeshift clinic to patients with problems ranging from diarrhea to malaria. “I felt there was a need to be filled,” she says. “If I have the capacity to fill that need then I have an obligation to go.”

And several Clinical Scholars from the 2008 cohort also traveled to Haiti last winter. These include Stanley Frencher, M.D., M.P.H., and Adam Richards, M.D., M.P.H.—who are both at the University of California in Los Angeles—and Aasim Padela, M.D., M.S., who is at the University of Michigan.

Frencher spent the last week of January providing medical care to victims in a variety of settings. Richards spent the first week of March acting as an internist clinician. And Padela spent two weeks in February providing care on the U.S.N.S Comfort, the U.S. Navy’s floating medical treatment center.

“I’m a researcher, so I don’t get to spend as much time using my clinical skills,” Padela says. “This was an opportunity to directly make a benefit with my hands.”