Harvard prof leads medical trip to Haiti
S. Allen Counter, a Harvard University neuroscience professor, was uniquely qualified to lead an aid mission to Haiti after the earthquake struck on Jan. 12. “There is not much difference between preparing for one of my explorations and planning a special aid tour to Haiti,” explained Counter.
As a recognized explorer, Counter traveled down a tropical river in Surinam to locate lost tribes of Africans who had fled to the forest to escape slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. He later climbed the Andes Mountains to locate similar tribes in Ecuador.
However, “no exploration was more logistically challenging than my trips to Greenland near the North Pole to locate the sons of Matthew Henson and Rear Admiral Robert Peary, the Americans who were the first to reach the North Pole,” recalled Counter.
Early reports from Haiti indicated that while planes could land at the airport, travel in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere was blocked by debris from collapsed buildings. “It was clear that the people needed food, water and medical attention, but the problem was how to reach the most needy,” said Counter as he considered the dilemma.
As director of the university’s Harvard Foundation, an organization to develop the racial and ethnic inclusion of Harvard students in university activities, Counter had invited Leonel Fernandez Reyna in 1999 and again in 2007 as an honored guest. Fernandez is the president of the Dominican Republic which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
During these visits to Harvard, Counter established a friendship with Fernandez. “Fortunately, the Dominican Republic was not damaged by the earthquake,” recounted Counter. “When I sought help from Fernandez he was eager to be of assistance. President Fernandez placed two military helicopters with pilots at my disposal for carrying out the aid mission in Haiti.
“There were many scary moments flying through the mountains between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Once in the Port-au-Prince area, we had to land on rubble strewn fields while just missing the trees,” stated Counter.
An important element of any expedition is the caliber of the team. Counter assembled for the Harvard Foundation Medical Relief Team many who had participated with him on the Hurricane Katrina relief effort in New Orleans in 2005. The team included, among others: Dr. Bruce Price, Chief of Neurology and Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Timothy Benson of McLean Hospital and Dr. Michael Jenike of MGH.
Counter was able to acquire donations of drugs and medical supplies, primarily from the Harvard University Health Services. “When we arrived in Haiti, the helicopters gave us access to places that were otherwise inaccessible,” he said. “We were also able to deliver water to injured patients who were dehydrating in the tropical sun.”
When he returned to Cambridge, Counter had a new mission. The earthquake had destroyed almost all of the housing in Haiti. People were sleeping on the ground without cover. Counter launched a campaign to raise funds to buy tents for Haitian families.
“I was soon able to return to Haiti with 150 tents provided by the generosity of actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith,” Counter exclaimed. “There were also a dozen tents donated by the students of the Baldwin Elementary School of Cambridge. There is still much to do but we made a start and let Haitians know that many Americans care about their recovery.”