Help and recover: Miami Heat get a close look at Haiti, where despair and frustration reign

By Tim Reynolds, AP
Sunday, June 6, 2010

To Mourning, a better Haiti isn’t good enough

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As the charter jet began backing away from the terminal, Ginel Thermosey slowly turned around to shake hands with the medical student seated one row behind him.

Had he not made the trip from Port-au-Prince to Miami, Thermosey would have died within two weeks of leukemia. In a few days, with some donated treatment and medication, the 20-year-old will have a new lease on life.

These are the stories Alonzo Mourning insists the world needs to hear, the success stories from Haiti, where the earthquakes that struck 4½ months ago took everything from people who had nothing to begin with. No one knows for sure how many people died, how many were never found, how many could have been saved.

Deep down, Mourning fears the world has already forgotten.

The work isn’t complete in Haiti, he says. It’s only beginning.

“These are human beings,” Mourning said, overlooking the tent hospital at the edge of Port-au-Prince’s airport. “These are children that are suffering, that need help. That’s what moved me to come, to do this, to continue to provide help as much as I can and continue to reach out to others, so others can be made aware that they, too, can play a part.”

For that reason, every couple weeks, Mourning makes the short flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince. The retired Miami Heat star is among the many spreading the tale of Project Medishare, the not-for-profit group from the University of Miami that already had spent nearly two decades trying to improve the quality of health care in the impoverished nation.

Millions have been raised.

Many millions more are needed. Things are better in Haiti, for certain — yet still terrible. Haitians are dying daily from drinking filthy water, or from hunger, or disease. Some parts of the city are so gripped by crime and desperation, visitors are told not to even think about venturing that way because no one’s safety is guaranteed.

“There still is a need for major help,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It is our responsibility.”

On Mourning’s latest trip, a down-and-back jaunt Saturday, Spoelstra, former Heat guard Tim Hardaway and Memphis Grizzlies star Rudy Gay made the trip with him, along with several other members of the Heat organization.

None had seen Haiti before.

Nothing could prepare them, either.

“Even flying in on the plane, seeing the devastation shocked me,” Gay said. “It’s easy to just hear about it, but to see it firsthand, it’s really humbling.”

Spoelstra held a premature baby in his left hand, the child so tiny that it rested its head on the tips of two of the coach’s fingers. Gay was approached by a woman at the tent hospital, who invited him to hold her newborn daughter — then begged him to take her back to the U.S., saying she lacked the means to give her child a life in Haiti. Hardaway was overwhelmed by the sight of ailing children.

“We are the luckiest people on earth,” Hardaway would say softly later, sunglasses hiding the emotion welling in his eyes. “We should be counting our lucky stars every day. This is tough.”

Somehow, among the Project Medishare staff, morale remains shockingly high.

Volunteers get shuttled in every Saturday for a seven-day stay. Anything longer, Medishare staff has learned, becomes just too tough for many to bear. Upon arrival, they are greeted by Tom Koulouris, who has run the tent hospital since its very first days after the earthquake.

“We have some of the best food in Port-au-Prince catered twice a day,” Koulouris is saying to the new volunteers. “At lunchtime, it consists of beans and rice. In the evening, it’s rice and beans.”

The hospital is not just for those affected by the earthquake. When people need medical attention in Haiti, they are usually taken to Project Medishare’s facility. Twenty-three American visitors were treated recently for trauma injuries after their truck toppled. Machete wounds, premature babies, mothers in desperate need, disease, all part of the daily lineup.

“We are the safety net of Port-au-Prince,” Koulouris said.

Koulouris goes home this week. His mission will be complete. The tent hospital is closing, thankfully. Patients began being moved about 15 minutes away Sunday to a more secure structure — an absolute necessity now that hurricane season has arrived in the Atlantic. Any storm with tropical or hurricane-force winds hitting the tent hospital would have almost surely destroyed everything.

He rattles off the stats, proudly: The tent hospital has treated over 20,000 patients, performed more than 1,500 major surgical procedures. It’s so high-tech, they can even fit people for prosthetic limbs; 37 of those have been issued so far, another 500 are on the way, as many as 4,500 are needed.

Through it all, Koulouris has not stopped to reflect on what’s transpired.

“I’m afraid if I do that here, I’ll probably fall apart,” he said. “I’ll wait until I get home.”

Soon, Thermosey will be back home as well. He can thank Anika Mirick for that.

Mirick is a first-year medical student from the University of Central Florida, who just finished her one-week stay at the tent hospital. Thermosey was one of her patients.

“I was crying every day,” Mirick said.

Desperate to find a way to save him, Mirick made calls and pleaded with doctors in Orlando, Fla. to save his life. They agreed without hesitation. And within one day, Thermosey had his 30-day visa allowing him to enter the U.S., a minor miracle in itself.

When that plane was leaving, Mirick was the person Thermosey thanked first, extending his hand, intravenous tubes protruding from it.

“He will survive,” Mirick said. “We just saved a life.”

It’s the moments like those that Mourning comes to see.

Perhaps the signature moment of his career was a blocked shot against Dallas in Miami’s title-clinching Game 6 of the 2006 NBA finals, when he flew over two people to slap Jason Terry’s layup away, fell to the floor, got up and shouted at teammates — with an expletive tossed in — “What are we doing?”

He’s shouting the same now.

He wants Warren Buffett to listen. Bill Gates, too. Anyone, anywhere, Mourning wants to tell them all, Haiti needs help more than they probably realize.

So he comes back, vowing not to stop until he has nothing left to offer.

“Things have progressed tremendously since Jan. 12,” Mourning said. “But there’s so much more work to be done.”


Project Medishare:

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