When disaster strikes afar don’t miss out

As I watched the Haiti earthquake news coverage unfold it was interesting to see how it transformed from an international disaster on day one, to a daily local news story for weeks.
The day after the quake struck, the scramble through news archives appeared to lead to two groups of former sources to try to find a local voice: parents who adopted Haitian babies and church-led medical missions. Then the focus turned to what local organizations were doing to help – whether gathering supplies, holding fund raisers or organizing a relief trip. The calls to large employers and local colleges seeking Haitian connections came next.
At some point, those in healthcare public relations either received a call or had to make a decision whether to pitch their efforts. In both cases, they approached the fine line between providing timely information and appearing self-absorbed.
The truth is, with sound fundamental media relations in practice at your organization, this wouldn’t be an issue. The relationships you build on a regular basis with reporters and editors allow you to drop the quick “I have a doc heading to Haiti next week” e-mail to the health reporter or to leave a “we’re holding a medical supply donation drive tomorrow” voicemail for the TV assignment desk.
I would argue that with effective internal communications and social media tactics you probably wouldn’t have to take those steps. By keeping employees updated on what efforts your company is taking, you start the spread of information to family, friends and patients. A quick blast through your organization’s Facebook or Twitter page (you do have those set up right?) does so even faster – and a good reporter is already following you.
In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which method is used. One could argue the need to use any and all means to reach the end.
So how did you handle the Haiti situation? Did you seek out attention or simply respond to inquiries? Will reading this perspective today change how you handle a similar situation next time?

First Hand Account
As you’re pondering this question, I thought you also might be interested in this first-hand experience from an Arkansas nurse before she left Haiti just a few days ago. It is certainly a humbling account, and one that reminds us that there is still much work for us all to do as individuals and for the organizations we represent.

In my opinion today has been the worst day yet. We got 3 helicopters in today. one was huge…carrying 20 people. The twenty have been sitting in Port Au Prince for two weeks in a sewage treatment plant. They had unstable fractures and injuries. We are seeing huge bed sores in addition to all the other injuries.

Today I got a chance to get to know my patients in the ICU. I’m taking care of a little boy with a skull fracture. His 12 year old brother sits at his bedside. He doesn’t know that his parents are dead. The 12 year old and this little boy are all alone. The 12 year old is so stoic. He feeds his brother and lies in bed with him. He is sleeping outside the hospital on the ground. Today I gave him some water and he was so appreciative.

Another girl, the one I wrote about a few nights ago. She had the arm amputation. She was going downhill when her brother asked me about her IV. She is doing so much better today. Her brother speaks some English. He was outside the ICU today and he was also caring for other patients. He told me that one of the patients was hungry. I didn’t have any food to give him but I knew of a place down the road that sold beans and rice. I asked the interpreter what it would cost to get him some food and something to drink. I asked the interpreter to see what he wanted to eat because there was also some sort of pasta dish. He was stunned that I would ask and would not accept me buying him food. It was going to cost $1.00 to feed him. I gave him $2.00 and he was overwhelmed. He hugged me and said thank you. About 2 hours later an anesthesiologist came to find me…he is practicing in STL but is from Haiti. He had the brother with him. He said “this guy has been bugging me for hours to come and find you so that I could tell you how thankful he is for you and that you saved his sister’s life and that you cared about him too. He said God Bless you and the Americans for coming to help us.” I hugged him and wanted to cry…but I was working and had to hold my emotion. I feel so guilty that in two days I will leave these people….and they will be here. Poor, hungry, without family and a home.

Another girl in the ICU is late 20s I would guess. She had crush injury to the abdomen. All along she has had an older man I would guess to be 70 at her bedside. He bathes her, wipes her bottom, puts her on the bedpan, feeds her, gives her water. He lies on the concrete floor next to her bed. Today we went to transfer her to regular hospital. He gathered her things and I went to hug him. The interpreter was there and I told him what a wonderful father he was. He told me that he is not related to her but that she needed help and he was healthy to help her. It broke me. I can’t say anything but that.

There is a psychiatrist here named Jeff. We have bonded on this trip just talking about life. He was at Ground Zero when the towers came down. He was choked up and handed me a tiny wrinkled piece of paper. It was a note from a little girl in the pediatric unit that he has spending time with each day. She too is an orphan because of the earthquake. The note, in perfect English and in neat cursive handwriting said “Hi Jeff How are you? it’s Edwine I am fahterless. I appreciate you for a father. I would like to go with you? I am waiting for your answer.” -Edwine

Tomorrow will probably be the busiest day yet. Right now we have 12 nurses for 300 patients. Tomorrow we will be down to 7. It will be another exhausting and humbling day. Going to bed so I can get back out there.

Love you and miss you,

Mike Milligan is president of Legato Marketing & Communications, a communications firm specializing in helping health care organizations enhance their brand and build volumes. For more insights on health care communications, subscribe to the LegatoBlog at www.legatoblog.com.

Leave a Reply