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Decker instructor volunteers in Haiti

By : Eric Coker

Karen Feltham is still struck by the scenes she observed while volunteering in earthquake-ravaged Haiti in early March.

People trying to remove rubble by hand. Schools closed for a third month. Families living in tents with little food and water.

“It’s beyond imagining,” said Feltham, a clinical instructor in the Decker School of Nursing. “It feels like people are living in more difficult conditions than immediately post-disaster because there’s no place for them to go. It’s a desperate situation. They are in need of sanitation, water and shelter.”

Feltham spent two weeks in Haiti, helping the country recover from the Jan. 12 quake that has left 230,000 dead and 1,000,000 homeless. She worked with Circle of Health International (COHI), a volunteer group that attends to women’s health needs in post-disaster and post-crisis situations. COHI team members arrived days after the earthquake.

“Right after the earthquake, I contacted the (COHI director) and asked, ‘What can I offer with the skills that I have?’” said Feltham, a former COHI board member who has been a midwife for a dozen years and has certification from the UN Population Fund to help women during a humanitarian crisis.

Feltham and other team members flew into the Dominican Republic and headed for their post across the border in Fond Parisien, Haiti. Feltham and COHI’s mission there was to support two Haitian midwives in their transition to an independent practice at an empty clinic.

Midwives are needed in Haiti, as the country has one of the largest infant and maternal mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere. Only 26 percent of Haitian women deliver attended, Feltham said.

“What I was doing was almost like a faculty role with the new midwives,” she said. “They were new to independent practice, so I supported prenatal visits, births and postpartum visits.”

Feltham and other team members also set up a monitoring system to evaluate the care provided by the Haitian midwives.

Feltham was conducting a prenatal clinic with a midwife one day when a young interpreter ran into the building with urgent news: A woman was ready to give birth in a car outside the clinic.

“The midwife and I grabbed our sterile gloves and ran out to the car,” Feltham said. “I watched (the midwife), since I was faculty, and she finished the birth beautifully in the back of the car. I took the newborn inside with my gloves on through the dusty parking lot.”

Feltham, who traveled to the devastated capital of Port-au- Prince for meetings, admitted that she did her share of crying during the mission.

“I think it was a combination of the beauty and injustice of it all,” she said. “The Haitian people were so warm. But every person I met had a story that was so heartbreaking.”

For example, Feltham recalled an interpreter who said he was with his father the day of the earthquake. He should have been at his school, where 120 classmates were killed.

“His father told him, ‘We have to keep going. We always have to keep going,’” Feltham said. “I never heard any whining. Everything they had, they shared generously. There was such an open-hearted warmth.”

Nevertheless, Feltham is not optimistic about Haiti seeing pre-quake living conditions anytime soon.

“It’s a little hopeless for what the Haitian government can do for the people,” she said. “They’ve really been knocked down. You can’t begin to know how to provide quality, countrywide, systemic health care and services.”

Feltham emphasized that the trip would not have been possible without the support of Decker, Dean Joyce Ferrario and faculty members who covered classes while she was away. Students were also patient, she said, as she could not answer e-mail during her time in Haiti.

“I feel like it was a hardship and I could not be more grateful,” she said.
Ann Fronczek, director of undergraduate programs in Decker, said faculty and administration in the school valued Feltham’s work and made a commitment to cover her classes.

“Karen has always had a commitment to global health issues and uses her clinical expertise as a nurse midwife to work with her NGO as well as with students in the school,” Fronczek said. “In (Decker), we strive to encourage faculty presence in local and global communities, in times of both disaster and peace. To support such endeavors, it requires teamwork from administrators, faculty and students to support a faculty member’s cause.”

Feltham said she has established contacts in Haiti and would like to return to Haiti someday with others from the University.

“I would love to take an interdepartmental trip to Haiti,” she said. “The adventure of going into another culture immediately opens up hearts and sympathies to a different experience.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08