Haitian medical students cope with disaster

The 2009 Project Haiti team. Project Haiti is an international medical outreach program organized by UF medical students. This year’s team will return to Haiti during spring break in March.

When news about last week’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti reached Gainesville, it was a shocking blow for eight UF medical students who come from the island country and have family there.

Fortunately, family members of all eight students survived the earthquake and have been contacted, said Donna M. Parker, M.D., assistant dean of the Office of Minority of Affairs at the College of Medicine.

“The first couple of days after the earthquake hit were very worrisome because I knew my Haitian students have family down there,” she explains. “It was an enormous relief when we learned all the families were safe.”

However, Parker still fears for the future of her students’ families.

“I know that they are running out of food, water and shelter,” she says. “We are very concerned.”

The amount of destruction left behind by the earthquake surprised Ricardy Rimpel, second-year medical student, who at first did not think the natural disaster was that severe. But after he saw the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince lying in ruins, he began to take it more seriously and has been “glued” to his computer each day reading and watching the updates from Hiati.

“I haven’t been able to do any school work because the only thing I can think about is Haiti,” says Rimpel, one of this year’s leaders for Project Haiti, an international medical outreach program organized by UF medical students.

Rimpel says he was finally able to reach his family three days after the earthquake, and although he is grateful they were not killed or injured, he knows his family members are filled with despair.

“My family was not hopeful at all,” he explains. “‘There is no Haiti,’ they told me.”

Ashley Patterson, also a member of the UF medical class of 2012, has distant family members living in Haiti and is working on raising funds for the relief effort, but she would rather be traveling to Haiti to help provide medical assistance.

“I love my country and my people, and I just want to be down there,” she says with a sense of urgency and frustration. “It’s driving me crazy. I’m trying to avoid looking at all the news and trying to study for my classes because school is not going to slow down for this.”

Both Patterson and Rimpel eagerly wait for the Project Haiti trip planned for spring break, March 6 – 13.

The medical outreach trip began in 1996 and includes students, faculty, housestaff and Shands personnel each year. The students realize they will face many more challenges this year than any trip in the past.

“We just are happy to be able to help our country when it’s in such a vulnerable state,” Patterson says.

To support Project Haiti, attend the UF Club Creole’s Gala, an annual fundraiser banquet that will benefit Project Haiti. It will take place Saturday, Jan. 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the Turkey Creek Country Club. For more information or to buy tickets, call Vesta Anilus at 239-687-8064.

For information about Project Haiti visit www.projHaiti.org.