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Student Spotlight: Katie O'Brien - Reflections on Haiti and Team Broken Earth
School of Pharmacy
(L-R) Katie O’Brien, a Haitian anesthesiologist and Dr. Ed Redmond in November 2011. Katie is holding a baby who has just woken up following a cleft lip surgery.

Team Broken Earth was formed in June 2010 when Dr. Andrew Furey returned from his first trip to Haiti, a country devastated by a catastrophic earthquake that same year. That first trip led to the formation of a group that has completed seven medical support missions to Haiti. Now more than three years after that first trip, the team continues to evolve and has pledged to continue providing clinical care in a country still in desperate need of help.

Katie O’Brien is very familiar with the work of Team Broken Earth. The second year pharmacy student is also an operating room (O.R.) nurse. In January she completed her second mission to Haiti as a member of Dr. Furey’s team and recently she talked with The Prescription about her experience.

How did you become a member of Team Broken Earth?
Well, the first time I went, back in November 2011, I was still doing some nursing shifts during my first year of pharmacy school and I happened to be working with Dr. Furey one weekend. The O.R. nurse who was supposed to go on that trip had to withdraw at the last minute. Dr. Furey said to me, “We’re going to Haiti next week – do you want to come?” I thought he was joking. I was a bit reluctant at first. I hadn’t been working much and I was concerned I wouldn’t be familiar enough with some of the equipment they might be using for different surgeries. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We won’t have any of that equipment to use down there anyway.” Five days later I was on a plane to Haiti.

What happened on that first trip?
There were four of us on that trip. Myself, Dr. Furey, Dr. Rideout and Dr. Redmond and it was only for six days. The larger team usually stays for a week or more and do a variety of things, but this was a short visit just to do surgeries. We were based in the Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince. It’s the best facility in the country and it receives a lot of the sickest, most critically injured people, so there are lots of challenging cases. In terms of work itself, it was one of the most mentally and physically demanding things I’ve ever done. You see the news and hear what other people say about the conditions, but to go there that first time and see the tent cities and the destruction, and especially the people who have suffered so much – it’s overwhelming.

You went back for a second time this past January. Tell me about that.
There is a lot of demand in terms of people who want to go, so I was really fortunate to get another opportunity, this time as part of the larger team. There were 28 of us, with physicians and nurses from all areas of the hospital. Included in that group were two anesthesiologists, a number of surgeons, pediatric and adult emergency physicians, a radiologist, a number of residents and a physiotherapist. It’s humbling to be part of such an amazing team and the expertise and experience in that group was unbelievable. This time I went as one of two nurses that would be working in the O.R. It was still an incredible experience and having the second nurse made us a lot more efficient.

Has your pharmacy training helped you on these trips?
The first time I had only been in the program for a few months but for this recent trip, I had a much better appreciation of what was going on in terms of the medications being prescribed and administered. The doctors there took some time to explain things to me as well. It’s so different in a place like Haiti. For example, hypertension and diabetes is a huge problem there, and if you receive a diagnosis of diabetes it’s very serious simply because they don’t have access to the meds like we do.

Would you like to go back as a pharmacist?
I would love to do that. I did have a chance to visit the pharmacy that’s on the same compound as the hospital. It was really small and they were responsible for the hospital as well as some community work. They have a program there now where pharmacy students from the United States go down to do a short volunteer rotation. I think it would be an amazing opportunity for a pharmacy student from MUN. I talked to the person there who ran the pharmacy and he seemed open to the idea.

What was the most important thing you took away from the experience?
In that situation, you have to check yourself. Stay relaxed and just take things in stride. That’s the big thing I learned from being part of this team. You’re surrounded by a group of hardworking people who are all experts in their fields, and they just work seamlessly together – always staying composed and professional. You follow their lead. Mainly though, it’s a powerful reminder of how much we take for granted and what poverty looks like. You see people who are struggling and yet they are always so thankful for any help you can give them. It’s a different kind of strength. The people in Haiti are amazing.

For more student stories, as well as updates on what's happening at the School of Pharmacy, check out the most recent issue of the School of Pharmacy newsletter, The Prescription, at http://www.mun.ca/pharmacy/aboutpharmacy/ThePrescription_Vol5_1.pdf

Apr 22nd, 2013

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