MOUNT VERNON — The demands of ceaseless, selfless work caught up with Scott Miglin on Sunday afternoon as he was exhibiting slides of his recent rescue work in Haiti. When he described witnessing how a disaster relief team physician had to refuse treating a terminally ill tuberculosis patient because of the shortage of care for other patients who at least had a chance to survive, Miglin’s voice grew thick with emotion.
“I didn’t think I’d get this emotional,” Miglin said, “because I haven’t been.”
The Mount Vernon pharmacist spent two weeks in the Caribbean island nation as one of the National Disaster Medical System’s Disaster Medical Assistance Teams offering humanitarian aid. On Jan. 12, the poor, densely populated country was struck by a massive 7.0 earthquake, which took an estimated 230,000 lives. International relief has poured in since then, although Miglin discovered firsthand what a hurdle practical logistics can be.
Miglin has been involved in disaster response teams since 2002, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the Haiti expedition marks the first time U.S. national disaster teams have been deployed outside the country. Normally part of DMAT PA-1, based in Pittsburgh, Miglin was temporarily reassigned to the NJ-1 group, based in New Jersey, which was short a pharmacist.
As the seriousness of the earthquake became apparent, disaster workers were alerted. Miglin received notification, packed and flew to Atlanta within 48 hours of the earthquake, and was deployed to Haiti the following day. A steady stream of relief workers was pouring into Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, but from there, transportation logistics broke down, Miglin said, as his group arrived at 2 p.m. but was unable to leave until 8 p.m. When vehicles were finally found, they turned out to be dump trucks. The teams had to load what gear they had — most of it got misrouted and trailed them by a day or two — through the truck’s dump hatch, then climb in themselves.
Having nowhere else to go, the teams were housed at the U.S. embassy, a facility Miglin said was completely unprepared for a sudden influx of aid workers. Miglin said they ended up camping all over the grounds, trying to fend off mosquitos, millipedes, fist-sized tarantulas and the drench of tropical morning dew. Even worse was the lack of equipment and security, which left the teams stranded, idle, at the embassy. Miglin said he even heard a rumor that one aid team which ventured forth without adequate security had its vehicle stolen. After a day or two of indecision, embassy officials relented enough to let the teams start caring for Haitian/American earthquake victims massed outside the gates of the embassy.
When the logistics finally fell into place, Miglin said, his team needed an hour and a half to make the three-mile trip back to the airport to prepare its mission. After working 18 1/2 hours, the teams slept for only three hours before returning to work to gather the rest of their equipment, which had finally caught up with them.
Finally, Miglin said, with security and transportation from the 82nd Airborne Division, the team set up a triage unit at a refugee camp in Pétion-Ville, just outside of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The camp held about 50,000 people needing triage, where those who would recover without treatment and those who would not recover were bypassed in hopes of treating those who might survive if given treatment. While the army distributed bags of humanitarian MRE rations, strike teams went to assist at local hospitals and in the streets wherever wounded people clustered.
Miglin and two other pharmacists set up their temporary pharmacy in an old bar section of a country club. Food and drugs were stored there for security, as some desperate Haitians found ways to bypass security. Miglin found himself having to deny drugs to people trying to get treatment without waiting to see a physician. Miglin said he had to lie about having certain drugs just to get those people to leave.
“It was hard, but it was necessary,” Miglin said.
But although some tried to get around the system, Miglin said most Haitians were overjoyed help was being offered.
“The resilience of the people was tremendous,” he said. “They were so appreciative of what we were trying to do.”
What they were trying to do included improvisation, he said. When one patient had a baby, team members rigged a plastic syringe with a latex glove stretched over the end to serve as a baby bottle. Plastic totes and a litter were sufficient to serve as a hospital bed.
After all of that intensive work, Miglin returned to the United States to resume his usual life, although not for long. By coincidence, Miglin had long ago volunteered to participate in a private organization’s aid trip to the Dominican Republic, the country next door to Haiti. The province Miglin will be working in on this trip borders Haiti, and may well have suffered damage in the earthquake, too.
Miglin said he would not be able to do such work helping others without his wife, Susan.
“I could not do this without her love, support and taking care of things at home during my deployments,” he said, adding that, in turn, Susan is supported by their family and friends who lend helping hands and words of encouragement.
Miglin specifically saluted Foster’s Pharmacy for going to the trouble of covering his absence when he has to leave on a moment’s notice. He contrasted that kind of commitment to a corporate pharmacy he had heard about, which contributed only a single bottle of ibuprofen to the relief effort.
Miglin showed slides from his mission Sunday afternoon to a crowd of friends at his house. One friend said his daughter’s school had taken up a collection to help the Haitians, and he wondered where an aid worker like Miglin would recommend it to be sent. Miglin said he would recommend donations be sent to World Water Relief or Partners in Health, two organizations he has worked with and for which he can personally vouch.