Two Hours in Haiti: Relief Flights Held to Rapid Pace

BY Larisa Epatko  February 10, 2010 at 11:09 AM EDT
Volunteers offload supplies following the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Volunteers offload supplies following the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

For weeks following the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, a steady stream of airplanes stuffed with medical and other relief supplies shuttled in and out of the Port-au-Prince airport. Adhering to a strict time frame, the workers had just two hours to offload tons of supplies to make room for the next planeload of aid.

Volunteers aboard one such plane sat in strategic locations — some in the first few rows to disembark quickly and begin unloading, others in the middle to hand them boxes of supplies, and still others in the back to move larger items such as crutches out the kitchen galley door, said Patty Marten of Sewickley, Pa., who was one of 15 volunteers on a flight organized by Jim Trovato, also of Sewickley.

“It all had to be done manually, as there were no mechanized conveyor belts to assist in the process,” she said.

The tens of thousands of pounds of medical supplies, including antibiotics and pain medication, were color coded and pre-labeled to speed the distribution process to their destination points, said Dr. James Blaugrund, a head and neck surgeon in Pittsburgh, who participated in three of the January flights with organizers Jim Bouchard and Dr. Ken Melani.

After transporting medical supplies and personnel into Haiti, two of Blaugrund’s flights also involved bringing Haitians in need of help back to the United States, including a group of orphans whose facility was damaged by the quake, and a cancer patient.

The cancer patient, 16-year-old Jean Kenson, appeared at a facility treating earthquake-related injuries with a large lump on his leg. Mark Sangimino, a pediatric orthopedic doctor who was seeing patients in Haiti at the time, recognized it as a tumor and acquired the necessary paperwork to bring him back to the United States, where he would be able to receive chemotherapy and other treatment, said Blaugrund.

With just minutes left in their two-hour window, Sangimino ran into the plane carrying Kenson, recalled Blaugrund.

“To have him come up the aisle at 7:30 as they’re about to close the door, with this kid in his arms — it’s just terrific,” he said. “It’s rare that these opportunities come up where you can do something that can so quickly affect a population.”