posted on: Thursday February 25, 2010
Allison O’Connor ’10/ News Staff
When an emergency happens, Koren Kanadanian, director of Emergency Management, is ready to respond, even when the situation extends far beyond the Providence College gates. Kanadanian is a member of the Massachusetts-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team [DMAT], comprised of professional, paraprofessional, and medical personnel whose job is to provide medical care during a disaster.
On Wednesday, Jan. 13, the 37 members of the MA-1 DMAT team were activated by the Federal Response National Disaster Medical System [NDMS] and the Secretary of Homeland Security and were deployed to Haiti to provide medical assistance. Kanadanian and teammates reported to their warehouse base in Wilmington, Mass., by 8:00 p.m. That evening, the team took a chartered flight from Logan Airport to Atlanta, followed by a four-hour chartered flight from Atlanta to Haiti. As the DMAT’s plane attempted to land at the Haitian airport, it almost collided with another aircraft. The plane dove down and the oxygen masks were released while it simultaneously swerved in order to avoid a collision.
“It was too dangerous [to land] because there were no lights on the runway, and there was so much air traffic,” he said. “The buildings of the airport were all really destroyed—it was just the runway.”
Only one person on a radio was attempting to direct the incoming air traffic, which was a difficult task since there was no electricity at the airport and it was extremely dark. As a result, Kanadanian and his DMAT team were diverted to nearby Turks and Caicos.
“We were there for about a day and a half until Friday when the Coast Guard [C-130 Aircraft] came and picked us up,” Kanadanian said.
On Friday and Saturday night, the team was brought to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti.
“They didn’t have a mission for us yet, and our equipment was stuck [behind] at the airport,” he said.
Due to logistics issues and delays finding the proper tools to unload the U.S. equipment at the airport, the team was forced to sleep on the ground outside the embassy on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It was frustrating for us because we just wanted to get out and save lives,” he said. “With the logistics issues and all those things, it was tough.”
The team finally received its mission on Sunday, Jan. 17, to set up an emergency field hospital at GHESKIO, which was formerly the Port-au-Prince clinic of the Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections. As they journeyed to their location 20 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, one of Haiti’s hardest hit areas, Kanadanian could not believe the devastation.
“There wasn’t a building standing as we were driving through,” he said. “People were camping out, literally living in the street [with] no sewage, no running water, [and] the stench was awful.”
On Sunday night, the team set up its Base of Operation [BOO].
“We saw our first patient at about 9:00 a.m. on the morning of Monday the 18,” said Kanadanian. “The surgical team came in a day later, and by Wednesday we were actually doing…surgery and the amputations.”
Adjacent to the GHESKIO field hospital was a soccer field that had been transformed into a tent city. People were living in the field under “sheets, sticks, and bedspreads,” he said. “[The people there] were all local…some of the other tent cities had people from all over, which caused tensions and fighting within those camps,” he said.
At first, many of the Haitian people were hesitant to seek medical care from the DMAT team, since many of its members did not speak the native language of French Creole.
“Until they really know who you are and what you’re doing, it’s tough with the language barrier,” said Kanadanian.
Fortunately, a local physician provided the team with high school students from the area who spoke English very well and were able to translate for the team and patients.
“This gave the connection to the people that we were okay and that they could trust us…and by the third day we had more patients,” he said.
The team provided much-needed care for all types of injuries.
“We do stabilization and then if they need further care, they’re sent out to the airport and put on an aircraft and sent to the U.S. or another country,” said Kanadanian.
“If we evacuated somebody, within 30 minutes they were either on a hospital ship or at least back at the airport getting further care than we could give them. Within hours they were back in the U.S. or in the Dominican Republic at a real hospital getting medical care.”
In addition to being an EMT, Kanadanian worked as a security specialist during deployment.
“I was the liaison with the Security Services U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division,” said Kanadanian. “We set up the perimeters and all of the safety things that we need to make sure that all of the personnel on our teams were safe and that people in tent city weren’t coming in without letting us know who they were.”
According to Kanadanian, a large number of the patients they treated were under the age of 12. One of the patients the team treated was a 10-week-old baby. Because it was too dangerous for the MedEvac helicopter to fly at night, the team had to hand ventilate the tiny baby for eight hours until they could transport her out to the ship, where she was given further treatment and was able to survive.
After a two week period, the MA-1 DMAT team was relieved from its duties by another DMAT team.
“There are 60 DMAT teams in the whole country, and just about every major city has a DMAT team,” he said. “There are about 12 teams around the country on call at the same time, so that if an emergency like this happens, we’ll be the first ones there.”
Returning to the U.S. was difficult for Kanadanian. Not only was he affected by the destruction he witnessed, but he also contracted dengue fever, a mosquito-borne tropical illness. As a result, he was sick for a month, and only just returned to the College last Tuesday, Feb. 16.
Since returning, he is more appreciative of the little comforts of home such as being able to go to the freezer to grab a few ice cubes.”It really does wake you up, it changes you to go and see these people who just have nothing,” he said. “You come back and appreciate everything that you have.”