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CHRIS BURESH Faculty member’s disaster response in Haiti latest example of his efforts to address international medical needs

Despite an earthquake that killed nearly 200,000 residents, left millions injured and homeless, and caused billions of dollars in damage, Chris Buresh is optimistic about Haiti.

Buresh, a clinical assistant professor in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and associate director of the residency program in emergency medicine at UI Hospitals and Clinics, has volunteered with medical missions to Haiti at least annually since 2003, during his pediatrics residency in North Carolina.

“Ever since that first trip, I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about Haiti,” he says. “It’s beautiful, it’s filthy, and it’s filled with immense suffering and joy, as well as incredible injustice.”

His last visit to Haiti before the January earthquake came just days ahead of the disaster, on a routine medical mission trip through the nonprofit organization World Wide Village. Buresh and UI medical school classmate Josh White, an emergency medicine physician in the Twin Cities, launched World Wide Village’s Community Health Initiative in Haiti last year. They established a primary care clinic to serve villages around Leogane, about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince, and planned to return every few months with volunteer medical personnel, including nurses and physicians from UI Hospitals and Clinics.

“In some remote villages, 10 years go by before they see another medical team, so there’s no way to treat chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension,” Buresh says. Working with the UI College of Public Health, he was collecting data that showed the Community Health Initiative’s early and consistent efforts were effective.

Scrambling to return to Haiti a week after the earthquake, Buresh found an unrecognizable Leogane: 80 percent of the city was destroyed and residents were living along roadsides in tents made of bed sheets and plastic tarp. The patients flooding the clinic—a simple shelter of tarps tied together with parachute cord because the permanent clinic was damaged—had open fractures, gaping scalp wounds, untreated and infected lacerations, and crushed limbs that required amputation. In a week, clinic volunteers treated 1,500 patients.

“I see a lot of pretty incredible things come through the ER, but never in that volume, not one right after the next, with every single patient,” Buresh says.

Their supplies were limited to what Buresh and his team carried with them to Haiti—bandages, antibiotics, minor surgical equipment, water chlorinators—or obtained from aid organizations. They quickly partnered with other disaster response teams, borrowing X-ray technology from a Japanese medical unit, for example. The international collaboration, as well as the Haitians’ resilience, fuels Buresh’s positive outlook.

“For the first time in a while, I’m pretty optimistic about Haiti,” he says. “As big as the problems are, we have the capacity, the resources, and finally the will to do something about it.”

Less than a month after the earthquake, a 50-bed mobile hospital, complete with operating rooms and air conditioning, was donated to World Wide Village. Buresh expects the facility to stay in Leogane for at least five years, and he’ll return frequently during the initial six months to supervise. Many of his UI colleagues, as well as fourth-year medical students, are volunteering to staff the hospital. Other volunteers in Iowa have inventoried donated supplies for the medical teams to take to Haiti.

Haitians’ medical needs, enormous before the earthquake, have only grown. The demand for physical therapy and rehabilitation services, as well as mental health professionals, will continue for some time. Volunteers like Buresh and his wife, Ginny Ryan, a UI obstetrician/gynecologist who also has served in Haiti, will be invaluable in managing Haitians’ long-term care needs.

“I started working internationally in college, when I went to India for a semester to do research in a leprosy sanatorium. That was when I first understood the world was a bigger place than I appreciated,” Buresh says. “I realized, as a middle-class white kid in Iowa, I had hundreds more opportunities than almost anybody else in the world to do something worthwhile. With that opportunity comes a bit of responsibility.”

story by Dawn Goodlove; photo by Kirk Murray

March 29, 2010