School of Health Sciences alumni Julie D. Rutt, '04, and Brian M. Webster, '06,
try to soothe a hurting Haiti following last year's devastating earthquake
by Tom Wilson,, writer/editor-PCToday.
When news of the catastrophic January 2010 earthquake in Haiti roared onto our shores, Americans readily joined in one of the largest relief efforts in international history. As otherworldly rumble begat unfathomable rubble, corporations shared the wealth, everyday citizens opened their hearts, and schoolchildren emptied their piggybanks.
And with a mixture of humility and humanity, two alumni of Pennsylvania College of Technology's School of Health Sciences – Julie D. Rutt, who earned a degree in paramedic technology in 2004, and Brian M. Webster, a 2006 nursing graduate – were among those who gave selflessly and soothingly.
"Quite honestly, my time in Haiti was the first time since being a nurse that I truly felt like I was giving back on a humanitarian level," said Webster, who is planning a fourth trip to the Caribbean nation this summer. "Perhaps it was because of the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, destruction and death that surrounded the patients and us. Or maybe it was due to the fact that we were their only hope, and ‘something' was better than ‘nothing at all.'"
Regardless, he said, it was a humbling experience to treat those who are medically underserved.
If devastation of such inexplicable proportion can spawn a "typical day," Webster said he generally awoke each morning to the thousandfold crow of roosters and the snaky, seemingly endless line of people who walked for hours and miles to seek medical attention.
An award-winning clinical supervisor at Williamsport Regional Medical Center's emergency department, Webster said most of the 300 to 400 patients seen by his team each day would be admitted to a hospital if presenting such symptoms in the United States.
In a nation where there are few resources (and even fewer laboratories and health care facilities), however, personnel relied on best-guess diagnoses and treatment with donated medications and supplies.
"I can recall a 20-day-old baby that was very sick," Webster said. "He was extremely dehydrated, malnourished and imminently close to dying. I remember asking God to guide my hands as I inserted a life-saving IV into his tiny arm." The intravenous insertion was a success, the child was resuscitated with fluids and medicine, and his care continued after transfer to a Red Cross hospital.
Such success stories routinely were countered by a health care provider's most profound heartbreak: not being able to help.
"This painfully occurred every day, especially with cancer patients," he explained. "In Haiti, cancer is a death sentence. There are no oncologists, medications or treatment facilities. The best we could do to comfort them was to offer assurance and provide pain relief."
Another frustration was to see a child with pica syndrome, caused by a nutritional shortage in the body and manifested in a youngster eating nonfood items – such as mud pies – to replace that nutrient.
The root cause is a parasite that spreads rampantly from person to person due to poor sanitation and hygiene, said Webster, who noted that "a major mission of our team was to de-worm all patients and teach them proper hand-washing techniques."
Not all of the treatment was administered to Haitians, as Webster had his own "Physician, heal thyself" moment born of a gastrointestinal virus.
"After having to use the bathroom over 10 times in an hour, I knew I was getting into trouble. At 3 a.m., I decided to do something about it," he related. "I treated myself with prescribed antibiotics from home and inserted an IV into my right arm for much-needed fluid replacement."
After about four hours and some rest, he was able to function again – no small consideration given the 100-degree heat and an equally oppressive workload.
"My emergency-nursing experience, remote medical training and support of the team got me through the situation," he said. "It reinforced the fact that, when traveling to a Third World country, you are your own help."
Amid the crushing isolation and poverty – Webster has traveled extensively, served in two branches of the military and said "nothing compared to what I witnessed in Haiti" – there were other powerful reminders: of life, priorities and the goodness of people.
On his initial trip, he said, "I left feeling guilty that I had so much, and they had so little. I literally cried on the flight back to the United States. After some time home, I realized that the Haitian people had more hope than I could ever wish for. Even in tragedy, they were kind, thankful and maintained a positive disposition."
Returning twice since, Webster has seen slow improvement in Haiti's recovery.
"There are currently more nongovernmental organizations in the country than ever before," he said. "However, the country's infrastructure and health care crisis will likely take many years to stabilize."
His own education was "second to none," he said, with professional and dedicated nursing professors and clinical instructors who inspired and motivated him to service.
"Regardless of your educational background, there is always a way to give back in the relief and humanitarian world," he advised. "Mechanics are needed to keep machinery running, logistics experts keep the flow of medications and critical supplies moving, and health care personnel treat the sick and needy. However you choose to serve, do so with an open mind and a ready heart.
"Through your volunteerism and selfless giving, you will grow as a person and reap the emotional rewards of helping the underserved."
For Rutt, a paramedic with Lancaster Emergency Medical Services, the road to Haiti began with another natural disaster comparably closer to home.
"Hurricane Katrina occurred (in 2005) shortly after I graduated from paramedic school," she said. "I knew that teams were being sent there, and one of my co-workers (Kline A. DeWire, a respected platoon chief with Susquehanna Regional EMS and an adjunct faculty member at Penn College, who died in December 2007) had the experience of being able to help with relief work shortly after it struck. I heard his stories, saw his pictures and realized that this was another route to be able to use my skills and education other than ‘just' working on the streets on a daily basis."
When Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf in 2008, Lancaster EMS was asked to provide two full emergency-response crews, and Rutt – weighing a phenomenal opportunity against the thorny logistics of making up a postgraduate class – signed on.
"The experience was less ‘guts and glory' than I was anticipating. Instead of doing emergency medical care of the ill and injured, we did a lot of patient transportation from facility to facility," she said. "While I was initially a little disappointed that my role down there wasn't quite as exciting as I was expecting, I met a lot of locals who expressed appreciation. It helped me realize that playing a support role in such a tragedy is as important and significant as the people on the front lines."
Returning home from Louisiana, Rutt worked with some visionary colleagues to develop a special-response team within Lancaster EMS to prepare providers for events – locally or wherever needed.
"Medical mission trips have always been on my mind. I am so thankful God placed me in a career that I love so much and that I feel fits my personality so well," she said. "I know that it is no coincidence that I ‘found' this career. I have always felt that God placed me in EMS, and I wanted to use my skills and knowledge to help give back to him."
Rutt was in the process of applying for an Indonesian mission trip when the Haitian quake hit. A few weeks later, after a former EMS volunteer with connections to the Haiti Family Ministries solicited medical and construction volunteers to help in clinics and with rebuilding, she was on board.
"After being picked up at the airport, I was astounded driving back to the compound I would be calling ‘home' for the next week," she said. "Some destroyed houses were cleaned up; others looked like they hadn't been touched. There were fields full of tents. There were shelters made of sheets and tarps in the medians of very busy streets."
Working in a clinic and helping at a nearby emergency room, Rutt's week was a litany of scabies, ringworm, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, dizziness, infection, communication challenges, anxiety … and the end-of-the-day realization that all had done their best.
"While their poverty and health care is hard to imagine, I do appreciate their laid-back way of life," she said. "We operated by ‘Haitian time.' They say ‘3'; you're lucky if they come by 3:30. No one is constantly looking at their watch, rushing from place to place. Kids do not have their entire days planned for them with music, language, sports and chess lessons. I did have Internet access at the hospital, but chose not to do anything other than send my family and a few friends one ‘I am still alive' e-mail."
"Next time my car gets a flat tire, I ‘do not have anything to eat' in my fridge or my heating oil is too expensive, I need to take some time to be thankful that I even experience those ‘woes.'" she said. "My house is not lying in a pile; I have my family, a job and the means to support myself. We are so blessed in this country."
Her mission assignments reflect the requisite "adapt and overcome" skills of the EMS professional, she said, offering a challenging array of circumstances for which there is no cookie-cutter response.
"There are some things that no degree of formal education can prepare you for, but I do feel that Penn College gave me a strong, grounded education in paramedicine," she said. "While environments change, as well as the conditions of working and even the availability of equipment, I have been provided a strong knowledge and skill set that hopefully allow me to adjust and adapt without too much problem into whatever situation I find myself."
She, too, is quick to advocate public service – whether for personal gratification, "just because you can" or for deeper purposes.
"Allow yourself to go out of your comfort zone," she said she would tell students. "These trips were a stretch for me. Each had uncomfortable or downright scary events in them. No one likes sitting in a hurricane shelter with no electricity and sewage backing up into the facilities as the storm pounds on the building outside.
"But don't let that put you off. Your skills and willingness to provide them in whatever way necessary is an amazing opportunity. You may never know how much your service is appreciated or how much you touched someone by being available." ■
The angelic face of an Indonesian schoolgirl, curious about the visitors to her community. Photo by Julie D. Rutt
A waving witness to destruction, the nation's flag flies over Haiti's ravaged presidential palace. Photo by Brian M. Webster
A Haitian child, adorned with one of the day's bright spots: stickers from a visiting medical team. Photo by Julie D. Rutt
Penn College welcomes comments that are on topic and civil. Read our full disclaimer.