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Tulane Helps Victims of Mitch

December 1, 1998

Judith Zwolak

When Emily Zielinski entered the drop-off center for items donated to the Central American victims of Hurricane Mitch, she was struck by the poignancy of a sign displayed there. "It read, 'Ayuda para los damnificados,' says Zielinski, a graduate student in international health and development in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Rough translation: "Help for the victims." But she couldn't help seeing, "Help for the damned." "If you've seen the television coverage of the devastation [in Nicaragua and Honduras], you realize that sign is not far from the truth," says Zielinski, one of a number of international health and development students who spearheaded an effort in their school to help Mitch victims.

They worked with Emelina Sanchez, administrative secretary in the chemistry department, who organized the universitywide donation program on the uptown and downtown campuses. Sanchez, a native of Nicaragua, said she knew she had to help victims of Mitch as soon as she saw the televised accounts of the hurricane's destruction.

"The countries affected are poor countries," she says. "I figured it was the least we could do." Sanchez credits President Scott Cowen for his quick reply to her request to form collection sites for donated items at the university. "I e-mailed him on a Monday night and he got back to me on Tuesday morning," she says.

Cowen established a collection site on each campus and Debbie Grant, executive director of university relations, sent an e-mail on Friday, Nov. 6, to the Tulane community, including alumni, notifying people of the relief efforts on the uptown and medical center campuses.

On Friday, Nov. 13, after a week-long collection effort, Sanchez had a team of chemistry graduate students, physical plant volunteers and community members assembled to help load 600 boxes of donated items on a truck bound for a collection point near the airport.

"Everybody on both campuses helped," Sanchez says. "We got a little bit of everything--clothes, canned food, crutches, diapers, [infant] formula, water." "Nothing compared to reality" Claudia Flotte, financial aid assistant in the financial aid office, volunteered in the uptown campus collection office in McAlister Auditorium.

Born in Nicaragua with family members still in Managua, Flotte says she feels a call to help out the hurricane victims, particularly after talking to her friends and relatives who live there.

"The cotton, rice and sugar cane crops have been wiped out," she says. "I have a friend with three children who is desperate for food. People are eating dead cows that they find."

Josefina Mendez-Rosa, a Newcomb College junior, was the driving force to solicit volunteers and donations from uptown campus undergraduates. A citizen of the United States, Mendez-Rosa keeps in close contact with family members in both Nicaragua and Honduras.

When the hurricane hit, she immediately looked for ways to help and, with assistance from the Center for International Students and Scholars, enlisted friends and fellow students. (The center reports that Tulane currently enrolls eight Honduran and six Nicaraguan students full time).

"My relatives say that the images we see on television are nothing compared to reality," Mendez-Rosa says. "You have to magnify those images 10 times."

Some medical center students and faculty members have seen the destruction firsthand. Janet Leasher, an optometrist and a graduate student in international health and development, is married to a Honduran and is a practicing physician there while also performing volunteer work with environmental and conservation groups. She enrolled at Tulane in May. Leasher traveled to Honduras immediately after Mitch hit but returned to New Orleans to take a biostatistics test before flying back.

"I went ballistic when I heard Mitch was heading for Honduras," she says. "I felt compelled to go back." Although Honduras is a poor nation, Leasher says, "It's an incredibly beautiful country where people have a refreshingly simple way of living off the land without many possessions."

Leasher returned to La Ceiba, the coastal town where she lives, on Nov. 13. "I'm going to put my education to good use before I even finish here," she says. "I've learned a lot about building latrines and dealing with diarrheal diseases, malnutrition and starvation."

An organization founded by one Tulane professor has provided medical assistance to Central America for almost two decades and has worked to help Mitch victims. Mayer Heiman, associate professor of medicine and a physician in Tulane Hospital and Clinic's Primary Care Clinic, is the founder of the International Hospital for Children, an organization that serves impoverished children in developing nations.

Formed in 1981, the organization is not a hospital in the literal sense, but is composed of a group of volunteers who organize shipments of medical supplies and medical journals, as well as implement educational exchanges with medical personnel and medical treatment at U.S. hospitals. Heiman's organization maintains a collection site on the West Bank and co-sponsored a telethon with a local television station that raised funds for relief victims.

Heiman left for Central America on Nov. 10 with a medical team from the International Hospital for Children. Ground zero Elaine Urbina, associate professor of pediatric cardiology, was in Nicaragua on an annual two-week medical mission to the country when Mitch blazed across Central America in late October.

Urbina and her team, which consists of 30 members of Trinity Episcopal Church, at first didn't know about the hurricane's devastation. Their location in a remote village on the central Pacific coast of the country gave them little contact with the rest of Nicaragua. When they did learn of the disastrous mudslides on the northern coast, the team members cut their mission short and headed to Granada, the nearest city.

"There was massive flooding in the area and we had to cross a roaring river on a barge attached to a cable that was about to break," Urbina says. Her team saw more danger when the truck they were traveling in nearly overturned on a flooded road.

In Granada, her mission team worked in a local hospital helping to treat more than 2,000 injured people from the region. Since returning to New Orleans on Nov. 2, Urbina has been working with the International Hospital for Children, local officials, the consulates of Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and Metrovision Partnership Foundation to complete a needs-assessment to aid the region.

In the short term, the International Hospital for Children is seeking donations, primarily of food such as dried beans and rice, and medicine such as Tylenol, ibuprofen, diarrhea and fungal medications and oral rehydration liquids. The drop-off center for the hospital is on the West Bank. Call 263-7600 for directions.

Urbina was also on hand at Tulane Hospital and Clinic when, on Nov. 13, a team of hospital personnel and the LifeFlight New Orleans medical transport company flew in two Nicaraguan men severely injured in a mudslide in the northwest corner of the country.

Urbina helped organize the transfer and treatment of the two mena 22-year-old who lost both of his legs after he was buried up to his neck in mud for four days and a 25-year-old who climbed a tree to avoid the mudslide but was blinded by mud and volcanic ash that buried him up to his neck. Both the transportation and treatment at Tulane's hospital was provided free of charge. Both were in stable condition in mid-November.

Investment in rehabilitation For people in the United States to have far-reaching effect on Mitch's victims, interest in the situation must extend beyond the initial offering of donations, says John Mason, professor of international health and development and an expert in complex emergencies in developing countries.

"In the first stages of a disaster, there is a high level of response and resources pour in," Mason says. "After a month or two, a large number of people are still destitute, and the world stops paying attention."

Although the donations of food and clothing have their place, money donations have the biggest impact, he says, particularly in countries like Honduras, where whole agricultural industries have been wiped out. "In these situations, good people are concerned and they want to try to do something," Mason says. "The greatest help would be investment in rehabilitation. Contributing money has a longer-term effect." Mason also recommends donating money through well-established agencies that are regularly audited.

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