Some feel a call, others are driven by principle, but Nishan Gunawardena was driven by his concern for his wife’s safety when he joined a group of Campbell University pharmacy graduates who volunteered to care for earthquake victims in Haiti.
Nishan (’10), Gail (’08) and two other Campbell University Pharm.D. graduates Roger Reeder (’10) and Megan Lockamy (’10), arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on May 1. They were assigned to a field hospital located on the Port-au-Prince airport grounds and sponsored by the University of Miami Global Institute and Project Medishare, a humanitarian organization collaborating with the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine to supply medical volunteers to Haiti.
The field hospital consisted of four large tents and many smaller tents with a total capacity of 200 patients. According to Gunawardena, hundreds lined up to be treated each morning, and each morning a great number were turned away. Most of the patients were amputees, many had sustained other injuries, some had bacterial infections caused by surgery and unsanitary conditions, many suffered from chronic disease states such as hypertension and diabetes and others had more acute problems like tuberculosis and malaria.
Gunawardena and the group worked as pharmacists, providing oral, intravenous and topical medications to patients in all departments of the hospital--adult to pediatric and neo-natal. Since all of the medications were donations, the pharmacy would not always have what the doctor requested and a lot of time was spent searching for the best alternative based on what the pharmacy had in stock. There were also drug donations from other countries that required the pharmacists to determine how to dose medications not available in the U.S. such as IV Augmentin and Quinine, all without the help of computers or Internet.
“There were two sets of challenges—the physical challenges dealing with the lack of personal comforts such as not having indoor showers and sleeping on cots; and the professional challenges like not having all of the resources that we needed, but still having to provide the same level of care,” Warner said.
“We also had to make critical decisions concerning areas in which we had little experience such as pediatric drug dosing,” Gunawardena added. “You really had to rely on your basic knowledge of pharmacy and say, ‘Okay, what can I use as a substitute?’”
Two days after they arrived, a fire broke out in the pediatric ICU tent and spread to the adult medical/surgical tent. The patients had to be evacuated along with their cots and IV poles. When all of the patients were outside, the pharmacists set up a mobile pharmacy to provide essential medicines until they could get back into the hospital.
“The patients had been so traumatized by the earthquake there was almost a stampede when the fire broke out,” said Gunawardena. “But the hardest thing for us to adjust to was the heat. Temperatures climbed to 116 degrees during the day and our group, who worked the night shift, could not sleep. It was a real challenge.”
One of the most difficult challenges, especially for the nurses, was not being able to help some people, Lockamy said. “To watch them slowly fade away because we didn’t have a particular drug or an instrument they needed was really hard. We wanted to do more, but we couldn’t because we didn’t have the means to do it.”
As donations started to dry up, the pharmacists were called upon to help develop a formulary for the hospital in order to purchase medications in the most cost effective manner. They were definitely able to use what they had learned in the classroom the group members agreed.
“Anyone can make a difference,” Warner said. “All you need is the willingness to do so. None of us had ever done anything like this and we did not feel very prepared for the trip. But we all shared a desire to help in whatever way we could, so we did our best and we figured it out as we went.”
Although he was a reluctant volunteer, the experience changed Gunawardena. “I wanted to go at first because I didn’t want Gail to go alone. But I was really glad I did because we helped a lot of people who really needed our help. It felt good doing it. It became the most rewarding feeling.”
Lockamy developed a new appreciation for her own country. “I guess I really realized how good Americans have it,” she said. “The Haitians have so much less. They haven’t been spoiled from day one like we have, yet they are so appreciative of anything you do.”
Reeder really tried to communicate with the Haitians in their native Creole tongue. “One of the phrases I learned was, ‘Tout bagay anfom?’ which means ‘Is everything okay?’ in English,” he said. “The Haitians were so gracious, even if my Creole didn’t make any sense to them, it made them happy that I tried to speak their language.”
A native of Sri Lanka, Nishan Gunawardena will be working as a pharmacist at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville, N.C. this fall. Gail Warner, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., is a pharmacist with Sampson Regional Medical Center in Clinton, N.C. Megan Lockamy, of Erwin, N.C., has not yet found a position but is interested in returning to Haiti as a volunteer. Roger Reeder, of Laurinburg, N.C., is performing a residency at Southeastern Medical Center in Lumberton, N.C. Warner credits Sampson Regional Medical Center for allowing her to volunteer in Haiti and for donating medications to the project hospital and Mathews Drug Store in Clinton for donating compounding supplies used to make pediatric liquid doses from the hospital’s adult strength tables and capsules.
For more information on how to volunteer with the University of Miami/Project Medishare Hospital or to donate medications or supplies, contact Project Medishare at http://www.projectmedishare.org.
Photo Copy: Graduates of Campbell University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Nishan Gunawardena and his wife Gail Warner, stand in the pharmacy area of the field hospital in Haiti where they volunteered.