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Volunteering to save lives in Haiti

By Julie Clothier for CNN
  • American physician Dr. Robert Fuller spent two weeks holiday volunteering in Haiti
  • Fuller says, volunteer with a credible aid agency if you are going to a disaster zone
  • Volunteers need to match their skills with the need; sometimes a donation can be just as helpful
  • Fuller: "The work was an impressive physical and mental challenge"

London, England (CNN) -- Sleeping in the open air under a mosquito net because earthquake aftershocks make being inside too frightening: It's not everyone's ideal way to use up their vacation.

But that's exactly what American physician Dr. Robert Fuller did for two weeks in January following the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

He was among the first foreign medical specialists to arrive at Port-au-Prince's largest hospital, three days after the January 12 earthquake hit.

The head of emergency medicine at the UConn Health Center, Fuller was faced with around 800 patients in need of care as well as hundreds of bodies in the morgue of Haiti's University and Educational Hospital (HUEH) when he arrived.

"There were no operating beds working until we arrived," the 45-year-old told CNN. "The work was an impressive physical and mental challenge."

People who arrive without infrastructure and logistical support become a liability not an asset.
--Dr. Robert Fuller, doctor, Haiti volunteer
How you can help in Haiti
Find our how you can help in Haiti; visit CNN Impact Your World for a list of organizations operating there.

Fuller and his colleagues provided care to hundreds of patients in their first few days in Haiti, preparing them for operations and amputations.

"You needed to be strong enough to realize that you cannot see every patient, cannot relieve every pain, cannot save every life and the most severe injuries to limbs would result in an amputation," Fuller said.

He has experience working in developing nations, including in Banda Aceh in Indonesia following the catastrophic December 2004 tsunami in southern Asia, which Fuller says helped him hugely in Haiti.

He also worked for two years in the Caribbean and spent a year in Ecuador, as well as working in New York following 9/11.

Fuller worked for global, humanitarian, non-profit organization International Medical Corps (IMC) in Indonesia and opted to work for them again in Haiti.

IMC has sent around 400 volunteer doctors and nurses to Haiti since the quake and is also training and employing another 200 local health workers.

He says the support of a credible aid agency is crucial to making volunteering worthwhile in a disaster zone.

"For me the biggest challenge was coordinating the various MDs and aid groups that arrived wanting to help. There was no firm leadership from the hospital so it was difficult to direct the right resources to the right needs," he said.

He told CNN, if going to a disaster-hit place isn't an option, donations to the agencies working on the ground are just as valuable.

"There are great needs but volunteers need to be sure to match their skills with the need," he said.

"They should not strike out on their own. People who arrive without infrastructure and logistical support become a liability not an asset."

He says he would consider heading to other disaster-hit regions to use his skills and acknowledges he could not do it without the support of his wife.

"As much as I'd like to head back to Haiti to meet some of the people I met there, Haiti doesn't need my skills now. It needs help with sanitization, housing and disease prevention."

Saundra Schimmelpfennig, director of The Charity Rater who also blogs about the impact of aid, agrees with Fuller that volunteers need to think about whether they can be an asset before heading to a place like Haiti.

"Unless you are an experienced aid worker and have a position with an experienced aid organization, please don't go to Haiti," she told CNN.

She says the cost of having foreign volunteers is often greater than the benefits.

Local people are often better placed to do the work on the ground because they speak the language, understand the culture, and have a support system, she added.

Schimmelpfennig is currently in Haiti and told CNN rebuilding the country will take five to 10 years, but those determined to volunteer need to be sure they're offering the right skills.