UW News

October 7, 2010

UW Medical Center nurse volunteers to help in Haiti, rallies co-workers, too

Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering

Laura Sawin Brown, a registered nurse at UW Medical Center, looked online for volunteer opportunities in Haiti shortly after the catastrophic earthquake hit in January 2010. She signed on with Project Medishare, a Florida-based nonprofit agency that was founded by two doctors from the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Project Medishare had the first American doctors on the ground when disaster struck, and Brown went to work in a 150-bed unit set up in a tent next to an airport runway. The hospital was primitive, she said. “It had plywood floors and military cots for beds.” Nevertheless, they had ventilators to help patients breathe.

Co-worker Kathleen Mijares, also a registered nurse, joined Brown on a volunteer trip in May. She’d previously worked on an international mission in 2007 in Guatemala. The second night of this trip, there were two fires in two different tents. All of the patients in the medical/surgical unit had to be moved outside. They slept under the stars.

“It was probably the weirdest night of my life,” said Brown. “We moved the ICU [intensive care unit] patients three times that night,” she said. “Having worked together previously with Kat was really helpful.”

Mijares said it didn’t take her too long to decide to help. “I wanted to go with a group, and after the earthquake, there was a lot of chaos there,” she said. “I knew Laura would choose a reliable organization and it was an easy process to volunteer.” Volunteers are required to pay for flights to Miami and other departure points. Project Medishare covers the cost of flights to Haiti, and food and lodging — in tents — is provided.

Sawin Brown said the volunteer tours have been “a nurse’s dream.” “You do what you can with what’s available,” she said. “You’re materials management, the respiratory therapist and sometimes, you’re the doctor.” It’s almost like being MacGyver, the nurses said, in a nod to the television series from the 1980s featuring a resourceful secret agent who could create almost anything out of common items. “We tape diapers together if we need something absorbent,” said Brown. Workers also created neonatal intensive care unit incubators by using plastic wrap and suitcases, in a pinch (see related photo).

Both Mijares and Brown encountered medical situations they’ve never had before, too. A patient with hemophilia, for example, died after having a tooth pulled. Health-care workers can’t just walk down a hall to get blood for transfusions. In one instance, Brown donated blood directly for a patient who had an adverse reaction to a drug and needed a transfusion. Families abandon disfigured or crippled children at the hospital, too.

Sawin Brown recently went on her fourth volunteer trip to Haiti and Mijares finished a second tour. Their husbands have joined them on recent trips and they are all profoundly affected by the experiences. “I don’t take things for granted, like giving a blood transfusion,” said Mijares. “At UW Medical Center, we walk two steps away and get the supplies we need to give that transfusion.”

Brown said she’s learned that you can live with a lot less than what you think. “It’s also helped me look at patients more, and not rely so much on all the super technologies we have.” Both women said they will continue to volunteer for as long as it’s needed and when it’s possible for them, work-wise.

Project Medishare may soon have to shut down some of its operations, due to a lack of funding. Both Brown and Mijares hope that won’t happen, and encourage people to donate, if possible.