Less than 24 hours after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Aug. 14, Emergency Department (ED) nurse Jennifer Verstreken, MBA, MSN, RN, landed in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.
As part of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit disaster response organization, Verstreken joined Morgan Broccoli, MD, of the Brigham ED, and three other team members in journeying to Les Cayes, a small city on the coast that was hit hard by the earthquake. The team was charged with assessing hospital needs, establishing relationships and treating patients in need of care.
“We quickly determined that the general hospital in Les Cayes was in desperate need,” said Verstreken. “The hospital was overflowing with patients, who were placed in hallways and courtyards, awaiting care for horrific orthopaedic injuries.”
The team met with the chief medical officer at Immaculate Conception Hospital and received permission to begin helping right away. “We went to work that day and started seeing patients in the ED and working with the staff,” said Verstreken. “Patients had crush injuries, fractures and infected wounds. Most had homes that were damaged or completely collapsed.”
Operating rooms in many nearby hospitals were severely damaged during the earthquake, which meant that Immaculate Conception Hospital could not send patients elsewhere.
“Orthopaedic surgeons were going 24/7. The volume never stopped,” Verstreken said.
For nine days, the five members of Team Rubicon stayed in a nearby orphanage and worked at the hospital for long hours to help as many patients as possible and support the hospital’s staff.
“Part of our role was to identify needs so that the next wave from Team Rubicon could bring necessary supplies, including bandages, splints, casting and antibiotics for wounds,” Verstreken said. “We oriented the new team to what we had been doing and introduced them to the hospital leaders and staff we had made relationships with so they could continue our efforts.”
Although the days were long and the hot weather made for extremely difficult working conditions, Verstreken found it difficult to return home after witnessing such devastating losses and suffering.
“Coming back to America, where we have so many choices and resources, is a struggle after being in such austere settings with profound poverty,” she said. “I’m also returning to an amazing facility with every resource you can imagine in the ED here. It takes a while to process everything. Coming back from Haiti was the hardest re-entry of the four international missions I’ve been on.”
Fortunately, Team Rubicon provides ongoing support for its members. “There is a check-in system to make sure people are doing OK. You’ll hear from someone who’s experienced a similar situation,” Verstreken said. “And it was also very reassuring to go to Haiti with a Brigham colleague and to be able to talk about what we experienced together.”
Helping Those in Need Globally and Locally
Haiti was not Verstreken’s first mission with Team Rubicon. Earlier this year, she volunteered for a mission to Papua New Guinea, an island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.
“The World Health Organization asked Team Rubicon to send a team to this remote island village to assess needs and evaluate how the small hospital was managing with the pandemic,” Verstreken said.
It took six days to arrive on the island, and the team stayed for two weeks. “We assessed the needs of every department and provided just-in-time training on equipment that had been donated to the hospital,” she said.
Verstreken, who also serves as program chair of the RN to BSN program at Bay State College, plans to continue her work with Team Rubicon locally for the rest of the year.
“The team is amazing,” she said, noting that she recently participated in a Habitat for Humanity event with the team. “It feels good to do these things.”
- Watch a video interview with Jennifer Verstreken and other Team Rubicon members here.
- Learn more about Team Rubicon, a veteran-founded and led disaster response organization. Founded following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the organization has grown to over 140,000 volunteers across the United States and has launched over 800 operations both domestically and internationally.