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Fall 2010

Bringing Comfort to Haiti

Powell served as sole pediatric neurologist on U.S. Navy ship

By: Mary Beth Regan
Date: October 1, 2010

Clydette Powell
Powell, on board the USNS Comfort with a patient and her baby.

Just days after Haiti was devastated last January by a mighty earthquake, pediatric neurologist Clydette Powell ’76, MPH, arrived to offer her help aboard the USNS Comfort. The massive U.S. Navy ship was equipped with 12 operating rooms and carried 900 medical personnel.

Over the course of a month, Powell worked tirelessly as the only pediatric neurologist available—alongside one U.S. Navy adult neurologist and two neurosurgeons. The days blurred as Powell examined patient after patient in the emergency room, then followed them to the ICU or patient wards. The work rarely ended: 16 to 19 hours a day, seven days a week. And the cases were severe:  massive head trauma, spinal cord injury, seizure disorders, crush injuries with peripheral nerve damage, tetanus from contaminated wounds, even cases of meningitis.

“I had never before seen such severity, in such a volume as these hundreds of Haitian patients who were injured in the earthquake,” says Powell. A medical officer for USAID in Washington, D.C., Powell has worked in some of the world’s most distressed regions, including Cambodia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Angola, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since 2001, she has served on USAID’s Bureau of Global Health’s Haiti team. Her area of expertise is infectious diseases. She looks, in particular, at the dual epidemics of TB and HIV/AIDS in underserved populations.

Powell’s travels had frequently brought her to Port-au-Prince. This time, of course, was horribly different. “The sights, the smells, the destruction,” she recalls. “It was eerie to stand where I had been before.” Still, hope and strength came from a complete unity of purpose. “Everyone, from Navy pilots bringing in patients, to doctors and nurses in the ICU, to volunteers from the American Red Cross and other organizations such as Johns Hopkins, was working together.”