Notes on Haiti - CEO Journal Part 1

Note: While serving a medical mission to Haiti, Scripps CEO Chris Van Gorder is writing dispatches about medical aid in progress, conditions on the ground and what can be done to help earthquake victims. For other journal entries, see the Haiti news page.

At about 11:30 a.m. EST today, Friday, Jan 22, our Delta aircraft left the ground in San Diego. Dr. Brent Eastman, our chief medical officer, looked around from the row in front of me and said, “well, here we go.”

For the past week, Scripps has been preparing to respond to the Haiti disaster in support of one of the State of California’s mobile field hospitals (MFH). California made an MFH available to the U.S. Government “if” it was willing to pay the costs — understandable given the State’s current financial condition. For several days, we waited while we all watched the horrific videos and media reports from Haiti.

In anticipation of a request by the federal government, California asked Scripps to prepare our Hospital Administrative Support Unit (HASU) and our Scripps Medical Response Team (SMRT). Both groups had trained in the mobile field hospital and had written the policies and procedures for hospital operations, under contract to the State.

We have a core group that is pre-trained in disaster response, and an experienced group which responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster at the request of Surgeon General Richard Carmona several years ago — and in Rancho Bernardo after the devastating 2007 fires. Still, we knew that this MFH would require help from new members of the Scripps Team. So we put out a request for volunteers and, within an hour, our disaster preparedness office had received more than 700 e-mails. So far, nearly 2,000 clinicians, support team members and physicians from virtually every specialty have volunteered their assistance. You can always count on the team at Scripps!

Our first two teams were set up with 20 nurses, 20 physicians and 15 support personnel and other clinicians. And back-ups were developed from the large numbers of volunteers. Team leaders were identified, equipment procured, uniforms and gear updated — and we waited.

I was able to make contact with colleagues in the East — most notably, Mr. John Bardis, president and CEO of MedAssets, our medical supply purchasing organization. He put me in touch with people in Washington D.C. and, ultimately, in contact (indirectly) with the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, and then the White House — directly.

In addition, the entire San Diego Congressional delegation was contacted and all of them — Democrat and Republican — signed a joint bipartisan letter encouraging the federal government to request California’s mobile field hospital and the Scripps team. And we waited….

We stayed in contact with State and Federal officials and finally received a call from a staffer at US-AID — the State Department agency coordinating the U.S. response. I was told the State’s proposal and Scripps’ willingness to help would be communicated to the Incident Commanders, and we would be called once they determined need and logistics. Finally, we thought we had moved to the top of the list. And we waited…

Finally, I received a call from the State on Wednesday. They had been informed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that California’s MFH would not be requested “anytime soon.” So we were encouraged to respond in any way we wanted.

So, we made contact with several non-government agencies (NGOs) to see if help was still needed, what conditions were like on the ground and if a response from Scripps would be helpful.

We received some mixed information but, generally, got the sense that medical help was still needed in parts of the country and that, in some areas, there were plenty of doctors and nurses, but a scarcity of supplies.

So the Scripps Disaster Management Team and HASU/SMRT leadership met and decided to send an advance team to Haiti to make contact with aid officials and NGOs — and to personally assess need and conditions. Two seats were donated by John Bardis in his private jet, which was already heading to Haiti. As you know, Dr. Eastman and I will be filling those seats. We are scheduled to arrive in Haiti at 3 a.m. EST Sunday morning, Feb. 24.

After making the decision, we pulled our gear together in backpacks — carefully planning to bring enough food, water and water purification systems, medications, tents and gear for about a week’s stay, at most. The thought is that we will gather the information we need by then or earlier, or we will identify the appropriate relief mission for Scripps.

By the way, the overall response to this mission at Scripps has been overwhelmingly positive. The Scripps Health Board of Trustees, led by current chair Robert Tjosvold, has also been very supportive. It’s important to understand that a mission like this is organized both for humanitarian reasons and to bring valuable learning back to Scripps and our community. While we always train for disasters — training is NEVER a substitute for the real thing.

I know there are many of you who want to come and help or are willing to support the team from home — back-filling for team members and caring for our patients. I have even been offered help by several donors and from people who have never donated to Scripps before.

So, we are on our way and hopefully we can verify need and make sure conditions are safe enough for our teams. And maybe, just maybe, the government will still request and send the State’s mobile field hospital. In fact, as I was standing in the San Diego airport, I was contacted by a community colleague and informed that the Army 82nd Airborne was requesting a mobile field hospital and more than 100 doctors. I put him in contact with State officials just before we took off.

I also spoke to a local state legislator, a former Marine, who told me he would love to join our team if we get deployed.

While in the air on our Delta flight to Atlanta, I watched the Haiti updates from CNN. I watched a story and video of an 8-year-old boy rushed to the airport by a businessman from a hospital in Port-au-Prince. The boy had a closed brain injury, and without immediate surgery he would die. Fortunately, American personnel put him on a Navy helicopter and flew him to the USS Comfort — the sister hospital ship to San Diego’s USS Mercy. Apparently, there is still a significant need on the ground.

So, that’s the update for now. Next message from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Chris Van Gorder

See the Haiti news page for other journal entries.