An Interview with Jeff Fidget, Earthquake Medic

On Jan. 12, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti just outside Port au Prince, Haiti, collapsing buildings across much of the city and killing an estimated 200,000 people. Countless more were injured. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief in Haiti (MADRIH) was a group of skilled volunteers formed to provide emergency medical care in Haiti in the weeks following the earthquake. The Nor'easter spoke with Jeff Fidget, a medic who spent two weeks in Haiti with MADRIH's Team 1.

Nor'easter: Tell me a little about your background as a medic and how you got started.

Jeff Fidget: I've been working as a street medic for over three years now. I got trained as a medic while I was in high school in Seattle, later became an EMT, and have since had the privilege of working with an amazing network and community of medics to support and participate in local actions in Boston, several national mobilizations, and a few long-term campaigns. Right now I'm working on finding ways to using my medical skills to contribute to the communities I live in, all year round.

NE: How did MADRIH come together?

JF: After the earthquake hit Haiti, informal networks based on friendship, shared experience and trust were the initial influences in putting together MADRIH. Phone calls, e-mails and yes, Facebook, were used to get interested folks on nightly national conference calls that began the day after the quake. After a couple of days, information on the calls was sent out to a national anarchist medic organizing listserv. Initially, the folks on those calls mainly came from one or both of two heavily overlapping networks: the national anarchist medic community and radicals who worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After several frantic days of preparation and plan changes, my team (our first of four) landed in Port au Prince one week to the day after the earthquake. As we worked in Haiti, an amazing and quickly growing network supported us, raised funds, launched a Web site and organized subsequent teams. Folks that have been involved with MADRIH in Haiti and in the States are a diverse bunch. We're street medics, community organizers, healthcare professionals and more. Many of us are the same dirty (and clean) kids that have flushed the eyes of our comrades from Seattle to Gaza to Pittsburgh.

NE: What kinds of injuries did you run into in Haiti?

JF: The majority of wounds were about what could be expected from huge, heavy objects falling on people. We're talking broken bones, crush wounds, people missing huge chunks out of legs and arms, and deep cuts. We also saw a surprising number of burns. In Haiti, most cooking is done with charcoal, so the earthquake knocked around a lot of open flames. In addition, we saw lots of patients with preexisting minor and chronic health conditions. Healthcare in Haiti was in terrible shape before the quake, and the remaining resources are diverted to help with the traumatic aftermath of the disaster. Folks with chronic medical issues really don't have much available.

One of the more unexpected sources of injuries or lasting problems was shoddy prior medical care. Lots of American doctors who rushed in from the States weren't prepared to improvise, didn't stay long enough and treated their patients as objects and numbers. This resulted in tons of unnecessary amputations and other procedures, shitty suturing jobs, casts over infections (a potentially deadly mistake), and other medical errors and shortcuts that likely would have lost doctors their licenses in the United States. I have a hard time believing that those doctors would have treated U.S. citizens in a disaster zone anything close to the way they treated Haitians.

NE: What were your biggest logistical problems?

JF: In my opinion, lack of information was far and away our biggest problem. The rushed nature of planning our trip meant that we didn't have time before leaving to gather information and resources to help us in Haiti. The situation there was sufficiently chaotic; there were times we wanted to move to other parts of Haiti to work but didn't have the information on the area to make that decision. We had a team member that grew up in Port au Prince that did an amazing job of finding all the resources we needed in the city, but information was very difficult to come by.

NE: Tell me about the U.N. response on the ground.

JF: I can't speak to the overall U.N. and affiliated response, only to my observations. It's important to remember that the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti and several other top officials were killed in the quake. For a highly bureaucratic and hierarchical organization, that was a huge blow. In some ways, the U.N. was very useful. We were able to get medical supplies and information from U.N. subgroups and warehouses, and U.N. meetings facilitated coordination, cooperation and information sharing between groups. On the other hand, the majority of medical personnel affiliated and working with the U.N. didn't start treating folks in the tent cities and slums until two weeks after the earthquake due to "security concerns." This was the all too common "we're afraid the hungry people will kill us if they don't have guns pointed at them" mentality that demonized survivors of Hurricane Katrina as well. And the United Nations World Food Program didn't start distributing food until almost three weeks after the quake because they claimed to need to plan an appropriate and safe way to distribute food.

I really don't know enough or have a broad enough perspective to know about the entire U.N. response, but my general impression was that the U.N. provided useful and essential aid and services, but also fucked up in a big, big way.

NE: What other groups are doing good work in Haiti?

JF: Being Able 2 Move Heaven and Earth 4 Haiti (BAM) is a daughter organization of MADRIH that is setting up an orphanage outside Port au Prince. There is information and a link from the MADRIH Web site. BAM is run by Suncere Shakur, an experienced community organizer who worked in New Orleans after Katrina. Herbs4Orphans (H4O) is a non-profit herbalism group that provides nutritional solutions for underprivileged youth in Haiti. Thomas Easley, the founder, was a member of my team in Haiti and is a great individual. Otherwise, Partners in Health is a large group but generally does good work with a radical basis and outlook. The INCITE Collective also has a great listing of worthy groups.

NE: Do you think MADRIH's experience in Haiti can be a start toward some kind of radical healthcare network in the United States?

JF: MADRIH has continued in the strong tradition of anarchist medics using skills outside of action situations. The tradition is a long one, and has been reaffirmed recently by the work of medics in New Orleans founding the Common Ground Clinic, but also by the hundreds of radical healthcare providers that work in and have founded free and sliding scale clinics and health centers all across the United States. I would hope that this continues and that we build our connections with each other and, as a whole, better provide care outside of our immediate action and anarchist communities. MADRIH is winding down our work as a network (several daughter projects have spawned that will continue future work in Haiti). Many of us who have been involved in MADRIH hope to formulate a structure for preparation and training to facilitate future disaster work by anarchist medics in the United States and abroad. I see a lot of potential (and need) in the people and networks that have formed around the radical medical community for more permanent and comprehensive medical care here. The recent healthcare crisis/fiasco/debate highlights a need for healthcare to return to our communities. The following quote is from Doc Rosen, one of the people who trained me as a medic and helped found the radical medical movement in this country. I think it sums up this question nicely, and [I think] that Doc spoke for a lot us:

"Traditionally, in every tribal society, medicine sprang from and was the property of the tribe and the people as a whole. In the Middle Ages, the church-based medical establishment deliberately and methodically substituted a patriarchal, hierarchical medical paradigm. It is my goal with the projects I've been helping to set up around the world to return medicine to the hands of the people from which it sprang."

NE: What can people do to help from here?

JF: As much as I hate to say it, all of those groups need money. If you are interested in doing disaster or community health work in the future, I'd look into getting training as a street medic, WEMT [Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician] and/or search-and-rescue training. Study up on the history of colonialism and imperialism in Haiti and in disaster zones. The book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in the Aftermath of Disasters by Rebecca Solnit also comes highly recommended. There is contact information on our Web site about future disaster relief efforts in this country and abroad. If you're interested in getting involved in a direct or supporting role in the future, get in touch. We'll be sponsoring trainings soon in the Northeast on a variety or relevant topics. Finally, support your local radical medics in our drive to make healthcare accessible and acceptable to all.

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